Ohio bill would ban new ownership of exotic pets

In an Aug. 2008 photo, Terry Thompson stands with some of his award-winning Percheron horses on his farm west of Zanesville, Ohio. Authorities said Thompson, a game-preserve owner, apparently freed dozens of wild animals, including tigers and grizzly bears, and then killed himself Tuesday night, Oct. 18, 2011.
Chris Crook,AP Photo/Zanesville Times Recorder

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Proposed legislation in Ohio would ban the purchase of lions, bears and other exotic animals, but current owners of the dangerous wildlife would be allowed to keep them as pets if they meet strict new requirements.

State Sen. Troy Balderson sent a letter Friday afternoon to state lawmakers, asking them to sign on to the proposal. He plans to introduce the bill Tuesday, and hearings are planned next week.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen the state's law took on new urgency in October when authorities were forced to kill 48 wild animals — including endangered Bengal tigers — after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.

"For the safety of our citizens and the animals, our regulations must ensure that the horror inflicted on my neighbors and constituents in Zanesville never happens in Ohio again," Balderson, a Zanesville Republican, wrote.

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Terry Thompson, 62, released the animals on Oct. 18. Six were captured and taken to the Columbus zoo, where they were put under quarantine by the state. One, a spotted leopard, was euthanized after it was hit by a lowering hydraulic door and suffered a severe spinal cord injury.

If the bill becomes law, Balderson's measure would immediately ban people from acquiring additional exotic animals. Zoo, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities would be exempt.

Owners of lions, tigers and other large animals such as elephants and crocodiles would be banned in 2014 from keeping the creatures unless they applied to be a "private shelter" and met new caging requirements and care standards.

"It's going to be tough to keep it, but you can keep it if you're ready to meet the regulations," said Josh Eck, Balderson's legislative aide.

People who own small monkeys or certain other primates could also continue to have them, but they also would need to meet new standards.

"The senator doesn't want the state to get into the business of seizing and euthanizing these animals," Eck said.

The bill would let owners of constricting and venomous snakes keep their reptiles, but they must have safety plans in place in case the snakes got out. Owners could still breed and acquire new snakes, Balderson's office said.

The proposal is less strict than a framework suggested last year by a state study committee.

The group had recommended a more stringent ban on the casual ownership of exotic animals. Those who still owned restricted wildlife — such as bears, monkeys and others — in 2014 without proper licenses or exemptions would have the animals taken away by state or local officials.