Hidden wildlife

Ohio authorities getting a sense of captive wildlife population
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Nobody knows how many tigers, chimpanzees, or alligators live in Ohio.

State authorities know of 360 privately owned wild animals: 134 primates, 124 wild cats, 46 bears, 32 alligators, 14 lemurs, seven wolves, two hyenas, and a monitor, all of which have been registered with the Ohio Department of Agriculture since September 2012. The wild cats, for example, include 48 tigers, 14 lions, and 15 cougars or mountain lions.

This tiger had been owned by an individual in Ohio. (Courtesy of International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Tracy Coppola, campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, expects that big cats that are registered are a minority of such privately owned wild cats within the state, which had some of the nation’s largest wildlife auction houses in recent years. In supporting federal legislation to restrict captive wild cat possession, her organization cites estimates that private owners in the U.S. are keeping thousands of big cats.

Before fall 2012, Ohio’s state government did not restrict wildlife possession or require registration of wild animals. Pets owned by private citizens are not regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture governs care and treatment of certain animals sold, used in research, transported for commercial purposes, or exhibited to the public.

In June 2012, Gov. John R. Kasich signed a law that requires registration of any wild animal deemed to be dangerous. Registration was due in November, and, starting Jan. 1, 2014, the law also will require that wildlife owners have permits from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, with exceptions for zoos and other facilities certified by approved nonprofit or governmental organizations.

Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio VMA, said in June that people in Ohio were starting to get a sense of how many wild animals live in captivity in their state. He said a relatively small number of animal owners registered since the law was passed.

“We certainly have a sense that there’s quite a few more than that,” Advent said. “Again, some of this is anecdotal, but we do know that some owners have said they’re not going to comply.”

Those seeking permits to keep their wild animals need to meet housing and veterinary care requirements, identify wildlife other than snakes with microchips, and buy liability insurance or surety bonds. The law will prohibit selling, transferring, shipping, or breeding affected species, with exceptions for inherited animals or those held for specific circumstances, such as species survival programs. It already prohibits selling such animals at auction.

Tim Harrison, director of Outreach for Animals, a nonprofit organization based in Dayton, Ohio, said most Ohio residents who own wildlife will be unable to keep their animals. By May, his organization had moved about 110 lions, tigers, and bears to accredited wildlife sanctuaries throughout the U.S.

“People are not getting their permits, and they’re not being able to microchip their animals or find a veterinarian that will work with them,” he said.

Some also cannot find insurance to keep, say, lions in their backyards, Harrison said.

When the state began requiring microchips as part of the registration and permit process, many wildlife owners called the Ohio VMA to ask for help finding veterinarians willing to implant the devices, Advent said. The VMA scrambled but found veterinarians willing to perform the procedures as well as veterinarians who offered to help colleagues with advice on drugs and dosage needed for sedation.

Advent said he has gotten indications that most owners of wildlife were not using veterinary care, but what percentage of owners brought their animals to veterinarians was unknown.

“Certainly, most of the signs point to the fact that you didn’t have regular veterinary care with a lot of them,” he said.

Advent thinks the new requirements provide a reasonable balance of considerations for public safety, owners’ desire to keep their animals, and animal welfare.

Wild but contained

Harrison is a retired police officer, firefighter, and paramedic from Oakwood, which borders Dayton, and throughout his career, he was called to help when wild animals escaped in the area. He has written standards on police use of force in response to wildlife threats and helped write laws restricting wildlife possession in cities including Cleveland and Dayton.

In the latter, he helped capture or remove about 100 animals such as alligators or bears annually before the local law was passed and 10 the year after. He has been close to dangerous wildlife on three continents, and he thinks the most dangerous animals are those that know human limitations.

“The ones that people keep in their backyards are the ones that scare me the most, because they just don’t have a fear of you, and they understand that you’re not as strong as they are and not as fast as they are,” he said.

Harrison noted that he favors the law’s microchip identification requirements, as no animal owner has claimed and asked him to return their escaped cougar once it was captured.

But he thinks the law should have let those who already owned wild animals keep them as long as they met standards for the animals’ cages. Sanctuaries will not accept all animals, and some will reject those that have had their claws or canines removed.

“We’re not going to find homes for all of these animals,” he said.

Law follows tragedy

Ohio’s legislature and governor passed the state law in response to the deaths of about 50 tigers, leopards, bears, lions, and other animals in October 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio. Police reports indicate the owner of the animals opened and cut the cages housing his animals and killed himself, and police officers killed the escaped animals to protect the public.

Erica Pitchford Hawkins, communication director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said in May that some animal owners understand restrictions are needed, whereas a group of seven sued the state. The public has supported the requirements, she said.

The seven wildlife owners who were trying to prevent implementation of the law lost in a federal district court in Ohio but have appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court had not ruled on the case by early June.

The district court documents describe testimony from those owners, among them a woman who owns 36 affected animals—including tigers, bears, and chimpanzees—as part of an exotic animal education center. She testified that she would have to spend $116,000 to comply with the act, and $73,000 worth of animals would lose all economic value since they could not be sold or shipped. She also expressed concern that two elderly animals, a serval and a lion, could die if anesthetized to implant microchips.

Another of the owners has more than 1,000 captive reptiles and amphibians and said the law would stop him from breeding his animals and make him give existing animals about six times more space. An owner of bears, cougars, wolves, and a lynx said the law would kill his business of bringing his animals to fairs, festivals, and corporate events.

U.S. District Judge George C. Smith expressed sympathy but said the state law did not violate the owners’ rights. Its consequences were the product of an adjustment of rights that the legislature deemed appropriate to protect the public, he wrote.

Federal response possible

On May 15, U.S. Reps. Howard McKeon and Loretta Sanchez, both of California, introduced H.R. 1998, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would prohibit people from obtaining or breeding wild cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, or hybrids thereof. Current owners would need to register with the USDA.

In a joint statement, the representatives said an alarming number of wild cats are bred and sold as pets in the U.S., threatening public safety and resulting in animal mistreatment. They said state regulations are a confusing and dangerous patchwork, and the legislation would improve animal safety and reduce animal trafficking.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, six states have no restrictions on owning big cats.

In a February 2000 position statement, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stated that only qualified, trained professionals should keep large wild and exotic cats. The agency’s Animal Care program experts “have seen too many instances where wild and exotic cats kept by untrained people have not only harmed people but suffered themselves due to poor care.”

Owners try to find new homes for their animals in response to high costs of ownership or aggression, the APHIS document states, but most zoos will not take the cats, and few sanctuaries are available. Many cats are killed for their pelts and meat, according to APHIS.

Harrison said many wildlife owners he has encountered love their animals, even though the animals are suffering.

“A lot of these animals are dying horrible deaths in captivity,” he said. “It’s very sad.”