Federal judge upholds Ohio's new exotic-animal law
By Ann Sanner and Kantele Franko
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A federal judge upheld Ohio's new restrictions on exotic animals on Thursday after several owners sued the state over the law, which was enacted after a man released dozens of his wild creatures including lions and tigers last year and then committed suicide.
U.S. District Court Judge George Smith in Columbus sided with the state, saying the court recognizes some businesses may be negatively affected and some owners may not be able to keep their beloved animals but the owners failed to prove constitutional rights were violated.
The court said the case came down to the public interest and protecting the public from potential dangers of exotic animals.
"While the named Plaintiffs may be responsible dangerous wild animal owners, there are some that are not,'' the ruling said.
Ohio officials have defended the law as a common-sense measure to address the growing safety problem of private ownership of exotics animals.
The state "felt all along like this law was in the best interest of the public and public safety, and in the health and the welfare of these animals, and the judge reaffirmed that,'' Ohio Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.
The seven owners who sued the state were disappointed by the decision and plan to appeal, said their attorney, Robert Owens.
Those owners said the new regulations force them to join private associations and possibly give up their animals without compensation. They also challenged a requirement that animals be implanted with microchips before being registered with the state, so the creatures can be identified if they get lost or escape.
The Humane Society of the United States, which joined the case to defend the law, praised the ruling.
Lawmakers worked with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen Ohio's regulations after a suicidal owner released dozens of creatures last year from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville. Authorities killed 48 of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public's safety.
Owners, animal experts and state authorities were among those who testified before the judge during a three-day hearing in mid-December.
Owner Cyndi Huntsman told the judge the microchip requirement amounted to a death sentence for some of her creatures because of the anesthesia required for the procedure. She feared animals with health problems or those that are older won't wake up from sedation.
The state argued in court documents that a microchip is "no larger than one or two grains of rice'' and is typically injected in a minimally invasive procedure no different than vaccinating.
While the law took effect in September, some aspects have yet to kick in. For instance, a permit process for owners won't begin until next October.
Current owners who want to keep their animals must obtain the new state-issued permits by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show inspectors they can properly contain the animals and care for them. Otherwise, they will be banned from having them.
The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.