Ohio owners sue state over new exotic-animal law
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Four owners of exotic animals in Ohio are suing the state’s agriculture department and its director over a new law regulating dangerous wildlife, contending the restrictions threaten their First Amendment and property rights.
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 2 in Columbus federal court. It came as the owners faced a Nov. 5 deadline to register their animals with the state.
The owners’ attorney said Nov. 2 that the state had agreed not to enforce certain provisions of the law until there was a hearing on the lawsuit. Attorney Robert Owens said lawyers were still reviewing the agreement, but a court order detailing the arrangement was expected in the coming days.
For instance, under the agreement, Ohio officials wouldn’t refer owners for prosecution if they didn’t register their animals by Nov. 2. Under the law, owners who don’t register could face a first-degree misdemeanor charge for a first offense, and a fifth-degree felony for any subsequent offenses.
A spokeswoman for the agriculture department refused to comment on the lawsuit or the agreement.
The owners claim the law forces them to join private associations and possibly give up their animals without compensation. They also take issue with a requirement that the animals be implanted with a microchip before they’re registered, so the creatures can be identified if they get lost or escape.
The state has said it would work with owners on the microchip requirement.
As of Nov. 2, Ohio’s agriculture department said it had received 130 registration forms accounting for 483 dangerous wild animals in the state.
Ohio’s restrictions on exotic animals had been among the nation’s weakest. State lawmakers worked with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen the law after owner Terry Thompson last fall released 50 creatures from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville before committing suicide.
Authorities killed 48 of the animals, fearing for the public’s safety. Two others were presumed eaten by other animals.
In their lawsuit, the owners say the cost of implanting a microchip in the animal can exceed the animal’s value. They also contend that joining certain groups to become exempt from the law means they would have to associate with and fund organizations with which they disagree.
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.
Although the law took effect last month, some aspects have yet to kick in. For instance, a permit process for owners won’t begin until October 2013.
Current owners who want to keep their animals must obtain the new state-issued permit by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds, and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and care for it.
One of the factors of obtaining a state permit includes timely registration. If owners are denied permits or can’t meet the new requirements, the state can seize the animals.