Restricting ownership of wild animals

As Ohio’s animal ownership restrictions take effect, some owners seek permits or surrender animals
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Dr. Gary Riggs has seen tigers that were kept in a basement, a bear caged outside a restaurant drive-through, and mountain lions left lame from improper declaw operations.

He has seen a 500-pound tiger that lived on a diet of canned Vienna sausages and junk food.

“All you have to do is pay a visit to a local exotic animal sanctuary,” he said. “All these animals have stories behind them that would break your heart.”

Dr. Riggs was a consultant for the Akron Zoo for 25 years, and he now works with wildlife sanctuaries and owns three practices in northeastern Ohio. This spring was the second one in his state without exotic animal auctions, which had been sources of impulse purchases of bears, lions, tigers, wolves, and venomous snakes.

“Over the years, I’ve just seen too many of these large animals, exotic animals, have miserable lives, and things end badly,” he said.

Starting in September 2012, Ohio’s state law prohibited auctions of animals deemed to be dangerous, a classification that includes venomous snakes, primates, and big cats. Since the start of this year, the law has prohibited all methods to buy, breed, or otherwise receive such animals, with exceptions for organizations such as zoos and research institutions.

Ohio residents now need permits to continue owning animals affected by the law. Getting a permit involves meeting species-based requirements affecting housing, security, identification, veterinary care, and diet.

A bear relinquished to state authorities in Ohio (Courtesy of the Ohio Department of Agriculture)

Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich signed the law restricting animal possession about eight months after a Zanesville, Ohio, man released some 50 tigers, wolves, bears, lions, and other animals and killed himself in October 2011. Police killed all of the animals with the exception of six that were captured.

Polly Britton, legislative agent for the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, said in a message to JAVMA News that the new restrictions on animal ownership had not improved conditions for people or animals. The association had opposed the 2012 legislation that led to the sales ban and ownership restrictions that took effect this year.

“From the animal owners’ perspective, the new law is not only unnecessary (these animals have been living comfortably and securely for many, many years and have been no threat at all to the public) but it is also dangerous and cruel to the animals themselves,” she wrote.

Britton said the conditions described by Dr. Riggs still would have been eliminated if legislators had instead required that all animal owners comply with the less costly housing and veterinary care requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates wild animal exhibitors. Owners obeying the federal rules still could have bred, sold, and exhibited their animals, she said.

Permits required

By late May, the Ohio Department of Agriculture had issued 53 permits affecting 97 animals and was considering applications for another 21 permits that would affect 208 animals.

Some of the animals covered by approved permits are 46 primates, 11 alligators, seven bears, and six tigers. Those affected by pending permit applications include 73 lions, tigers, or crossbreeds; 28 bears; and 11 primates.

Erica Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the state had not denied any permit applications, and no animals had been confiscated. But animal owners had voluntarily relinquished about three dozen animals to the state—including alligators, bears, a wolf, a serval, and a cougar—which are living in a state facility while the state works to find them homes in sanctuaries.

Those figures do not include animals that owners sent directly to sanctuaries or moved out of state.

Dr. Tony M. Forshey, Ohio’s state veterinarian, said most animals that had arrived at the facility had some degree of metabolic disease, and only one of four animals that arrived in the preceding two weeks was in good health. Many had not been fed good diets, and some lived on what roadkill their owners could scavenge.

Dr. Forshey said that now, animals in private hands, overall, are housed in better conditions than they were prior to the change in the law.

Hawkins noted it is likely far more people own wildlife than have sought permits, but the state cannot scour backyards to find where such animals are held. Those in the agriculture department have had difficulty persuading animal owners to work with them.

Bar chart: Private wildlife possession in Ohio

Seven animal owners challenged the law but were defeated in district and appellate courts, with the most recent defeat in a March 2014 ruling from the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At least two of those owners since have received permits and two others have applied.

Robert M. Owens, who represented the owners in the courts, said he is preparing to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

“There are animals that have been with these owners more than 20 years, and some of them are very much geriatric animals,” he said. He described the possibility of removing such animals from longtime habitats as “heart-wrenching” and “dangerous,” and work to meet the state’s requirements has been difficult.

“I think it’s just very sad—the impact on both the animals and the owners,” he said. “There is very much an emotional element to this that goes far beyond the arcane legal elements.”

Owens also said older animals could be in danger if placed under anesthesia to add the microchips required under the new law.

Britton said a 1-year-old African lion, Zaria, which had lived in east-central Ohio, had neurologic signs and died a few days following anesthesia to implant a microchip after the law was passed in 2012. She also cited cases in Ohio and elsewhere in which anesthesia was connected with deaths and other adverse events in exotic animals.

Risks and restrictions

Dr. Riggs said he feels sorry for clients who have provided good care but have had difficulty reaching compliance with the law, although some have been able to more easily adapt by classifying their homes as secondary confinements. But he knows some animal owners have surrendered their pets to sanctuaries because they thought they wouldn’t be able to comply.

He noted that people who retained their animals but did not seek permits may be afraid to seek veterinary care, but he acknowledged some of those owners may not have done so before the law was passed. He does expect the law will help those animals covered by permits.

Tiger cubs can stop being cuddly after a month, and the animals usually suffer when people respond by removing teeth and claws, he said.

“Not all exotics make good pets, and not all people can take care of them,” he said. “And, hopefully, we’re going to err on the side of animal health, whereas in the past, I don’t think we have.”

Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio VMA, said the state has fewer such animals, as they have been relocated to sanctuaries outside the state. He said the new law is helping ensure animals are given appropriate care.

The Ohio Animal Health Foundation also has awarded grants to help relocate animals that needed to be moved following passage of the law, Advent said.

Tim Harrison, director of the Dayton-based Outreach for Animals, described wildlife owners as people who have good hearts and want to help wild species, although their tigers, for example, will never help the wild population in India. He lately tells people that cats and dogs need homes, and wild animals should be left alone.

Harrison, who is a retired police officer and a paramedic, gives presentations on the dangers of wild animals kept as pets. One was an April 25 presentation during the All Ohio Pediatric Trauma Symposium in Miamisburg, Ohio. Health care employees are hungry for information on the variety of animals living in their communities, he said.

He noted that a bear can injure a human in ways that are traumatic even to paramedics and emergency room employees, and hospitals may not have the anti-venom needed to respond to a bite from a Black Mamba.

Harrison said conditions are improving in Ohio, as nobody in the state is still selling tiger cubs. But he has heard of people who owned large predators moving to neighboring West Virginia.

But West Virginia House Bill 4393, signed into law March 21 and effective June 4, created the state’s Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which has similarities to the Ohio law. It will prohibit acquiring animals deemed to be dangerous and eventually require that those with such animals obtain permits, which will require meeting standards on care, housing, security, and insurance.

Dr. Jewell Plumley, West Virginia’s state veterinarian, said state agencies were developing the rules that will govern the types of animals affected, housing requirements, and registration requirements.

Tracy Coppola, campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said there is no way to know how many wild animals are privately owned in the U.S., but big cats are estimated to number in the thousands. More tigers are in private hands in the U.S. than are in the wild, she said.

The IFAW is pushing for passage of the federal Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, H.R. 1998, which would prohibit acquiring many types of large wild cats. Coppola said such animals should never be pets or exhibits in private roadside zoos, people should not have to worry about escapes and maulings, and sanctuaries should not have to struggle to keep up with an influx of discarded wildlife.

Related JAVMA content:

Hidden wildlife (July 15, 2013)

Ohio restricting wild animal ownership (July 15, 2012)