High court rules against returning exotic animals to Ohio sanctuary

Columbus — A county judge doesn’t have jurisdiction to make the state return five tigers and five other exotic animals to a farm where they were seized two weeks ago, the state Supreme Court said.

A Stark County judge had ordered that the Department of Agriculture return the animals to Stump Hill Farm in Massillon by May 19, but the state’s high court concluded the agriculture director has “exclusive authority” to enforce Ohio’s law on dangerous wild animals, including ordering the quarantine or removal of those found to be kept in violation of the law. Two justices dissented.

The court ordered Judge Frank Forchione to vacate his previous orders in the case and stay out of it. But the legal fight over the animals, including four cubs born to one of the five tigers after the seizure, is probably far from finished.

Two pumas, two baboons, and a chimpanzee also were taken, and owner Cyndi Huntsman wants all the animals back. Her attorney, John Juergensen, contends the animals are no threat and the state violated her rights and improperly seized her property.

“It’s not justice,” the attorney said. “It’s just government overreaching.”

Huntsman has an administrative appeal pending with the department over a quarantine order and plans a similar appeal over the transfer order that led to the May 4 seizure, Juergensen said. After the administrative process, the issue could be taken to court.

Juergensen and an attorney for Forchione had argued that the judge acted within his authority when he granted a warrant enabling the seizure and then later ordered the animals returned after concluding the state failed to disclose relevant facts about the pending appeal.

The state, which stands by its actions, had considered Stump Hill to be the last large facility not complying with stricter rules it enacted after a suicidal man released lions, tigers, and other creatures from a Zanesville-area farm in 2011. Huntsman is one of five owners still in legal disputes over animals under those restrictions.

The Department of Agriculture worked with Stump Hill on its efforts to get accreditation from the Zoological Association of America so the farm could be exempt from the permit requirements, but it took action to remove the animals after those attempts stalled, department spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.

Huntsman argues that her farm is a licensed educational facility and is exempt from permit requirements.

Most of the seized animals are at a holding facility east of Columbus. The chimpanzee was quickly moved to an out-of-state rescue facility, which a department spokeswoman wouldn’t identify.

Juergensen said it’s unfortunate the animals are being unnecessarily put under distress.

However, Hawkins said the animals still being held in Reynoldsburg are “doing great” and are showing no signs of being stressed or anxious.

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