Update: The House Ag Committee approved the bill May 16, with new amendments, by a vote of 17 in favor, and four opposed. This announcement came shortly after our article was published.
COLUMBUS — A bill designed to regulate and ban private ownership of “dangerous wild animals” is being considered in Ohio’s House Ag Committee.
Senate Bill 310 was passed by the Senate April 25, with 30 votes in favor, and one against.
Amendments to the House bill version will be considered this week, said Michael McGuire, legislative aide to Ag Committee Chairman Dave Hall, R-Millersburg. McGuire said a vote is possible this week, “if everyone is at the table and ready.”
The Senate version basically bans private ownership as of Jan. 1, 2014, except for those who possess the proper permit. Unless they meet specific permit requirements, a person would not be allowed to “buy, sell, trade or transfer” these types of animals.
The animals include hyenas, gray wolves, lions, tigers, bears, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, elephants, alligators, crocodiles, various types of monkeys and additional animals.
Under the Senate version, the owner would need to place a microchip in his animals 60 days after the bill becomes law.
The permits to keep these animals beyond 2013 basically consist of a wildlife shelter permit, wildlife propagation permit, snake permits, and rescue facility permits.
The wildlife shelter permit requires an owner to submit a plan of housing and emergency preparedness, and to pay a $500 fee for ownership up to three such animals, and up to $2,000, if he keeps 16 or more such animals.
Proof of financial responsibility also is required. Owners must have liability insurance or a surety bond of at least $250,000, and up to $1 million if 16 or more animals are kept.
Some of the bill dates back to 2010 and 2011, when former Gov. Ted Strickland made an agreement with Ohio agriculture leaders and Humane Society of the United States, to put new restrictions on exotic animal ownership. Gov. John Kasich, who took office in January of 2011, formed a task force to consider new regulations for the exotic animal industry.
The legislation drew worldwide attention in October 2011 when deceased exotic animal owner Terry Thompson, of Zanesville, apparently set free more than 40 such animals in an apparent suicide attempt.
McGuire said ag committee sessions have been “very well attended,” with people voicing support and opposition.
Deirdre Herbert, the mother of 24-year-old Brent Kandra, who was killed by a bear at a Lorain County exotic animal farm in August of 2010, has testified in support of new regulations.
“I don’t have a problem with the people who are keeping these animals (for rescue),” she told Farm and Dairy.
Instead, she opposes people who purchase the animals and are breeding them and presenting them as part of their business, and “teaching children from a young age that these animals are harmless.”
Her son worked for the now deceased exotic animal owner, Sam Mazzola. Herbert said her son got drawn into the business the same way most young people do, without a full understanding of “the reality of these animals once they get bigger and once they reach their full maturity level — once natural instincts kick in.”
But owners and supporters of the animals say the bill goes too far, with the purpose of ending private ownership and breeding rights.
Polly Britton, legislative agent for Ohio Association of Animal Owners, takes issues with “inconsistencies” in the bill. Specifically, she’s upset the bill treats entities differently when it comes to inspections and certifications.
“It makes sense to us (animal owners) that the bill should make everybody meet USDA requirements,” she said, adding that anything else is “inconsistent.”
Britton was part of the Kasich task force to help craft new regulations. She said the current bill adds more animals than were originally agreed to be banned, and she’s unhappy with the fee schedule.
Her organization has submitted a substitute bill, which she said provides “affordable” permitting options and ensures that owners who “meet USDA requirements that are written into Ohio law,” can keep their animals.
But Erica Pitchford, spokesperson for Ohio Department of Agriculture, said administering new rules will come with a price. She expects additional veterinarians would need to be hired, and current staff would need new training.
Ohio Ag Director David Daniels has testified for the bill in both the House and Senate. Pitchford said it makes sense ODA would administer the new rules, because it’s the only state agency with field veterinarians.
But the department does have a few issues with the bill. One is setting a fee schedule that covers expenses, and another is providing appropriate limits to the rescue facility permit. She said ODA supports rescue permits, but does not want to create a situation that could cause a “continued influx of these animals into the state” by owners outside Ohio.
Thurman Mullet, co-owner of Mount Hope Auction, has testified as one of the owners of an “alternative animal” auction, held in Holmes County. Although he does not sell the animals in question, he’s troubled by the precedent the legislation could set, because it restricts reproduction rights, limits private ownership and potentially opens the door for additional animals to be banned in the future.
“This list will never shrink; this list will always grow,” he said.
But Pitchford said if the director decides an additional animal should be added at a later date, that decision “is not complete, unchecked authority.” The decision still must go through Ohio’s Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review — where the new rule would be subject to legislative review and public comment.
Part of the reason for adding more animals, she said, is because new hybrids and species could be introduced in the future, which are considered dangerous and wild.
Mullet said he understands why regulations are needed, to protect neighbors and others from potentially dangerous situations, like keeping a large tiger in a residential back yard.
“You’ve got to have some accountability,” he said.
One area where parties seem to agree, is that their comments are being taken seriously.
“There were a lot of questions, which I love that, because in the Senate committee nobody hardly asked any questions at all,” Britton said.
Herbert, a proponent, said she’s interacted with, and “listened openly” to the other side. In the end, “the reality is there is going to be a law — it’s just a matter of the exotic animal owners (and) the pet owners presenting their case.”