Ohio senate passes exotic animal bill

Columbus —  The state Senate passed a bill to ban new ownership of monkeys, lions and other exotic animals, an issue in the legislature since authorities months ago were forced to kill dozens of wild creatures let loose by a suicidal owner in eastern Ohio.

Senators passed the measure on a 30-1 vote. It now goes to the House for consideration. Gov. John Kasich, the Columbus Zoo, and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation support the measure.

The bill would ban new ownership of dangerous exotic animals but allow current owners to keep their animals by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014 and meeting other strict conditions. Facilities accredited by some national zoo groups would be exempt from the bill, along with sanctuaries and research institutions.

Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen the regulations took on new urgency in October after Terry Thompson released 56 animals – including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers – from his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville before he committed suicide. Authorities killed 48 of the animals as a public safety measure.

“This terrible incident brought to light this fact: Ohio has no laws to govern ownership of such animals,” said Sen. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville who sponsored the bill.

Despite hours of discussion in committee, there was no debate on the Senate floor – only statements urging support of the measure from Balderson and from the ranking

Democrat on the Senate’s agriculture panel.

Sen. Kris Jordan, a Powell Republican, said he voted against the measure because he believed the bill went too far and punished responsible animal owners for Thompson’s actions.

But the proposal is not as strict as a ban suggested last year by a state study committee that Kasich convened. And Balderson said his bill would be sufficient to ensure animal owners keep their animals in check.

Balderson said Ohio does have responsible animal owners who should be able to keep their wildlife.

“We have to protect those people,” Balderson told reporters after a Senate committee passed the bill. “Let them take care of those animals. Because we have nowhere to put them, we have no way to pay for them.”

Under the measure, permit fees for lions, tigers and other dangerous animals would begin at $500. Insurance policies for dangerous animals could reach as high as $1 million, depending on the number of animals. Owners would be required to pass a background check and show inspectors that they adhere to care standards and have taken safety measures such as fencing the property.

Testimony on the proposal wrapped up after more than 30 opponents, including many animal owners, lined up to speak against the bill.

Balderson said lawmakers made a number of changes to the bill based on concerns from owners and other opponents.

For instance, owners could obtain surety bonds in lieu of liability insurance to give them more options. Another revision would allow the department director to issue temporary waivers to owners who are trying to get accreditation to obtain a permit.

Under additional changes, the bill would exempt service monkeys that help the disabled and constricting snakes that are less than 12 feet long. It would decrease requirements on warning signs around an owner’s property and exempt animals from required microchip implantation if it would endanger their health.

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization supported the measure, but was concerned with amendments that eased certain snake restrictions and an exemption for certain facilities associated with the Zoological Association of America.

Balderson said getting the permits and regulation program under way would cost the Department of Agriculture about $800,000. State officials aren’t sure how many wild animals the bill would affect.

“That’s part of the problem – we don’t know,” said Sen. Cliff Hite, a Findlay Republican and the Senate agriculture committee’s chairman.

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