COLUMBUS -- Ohio's $2.9 million facility for exotic animals in suburban Columbus hasn't been used much in the four months since it opened, with two black bears and five alligators briefly called home before being moved to out-of-state sanctuaries.
But business will pick up in six months when the state's exotic-animal law goes into full effect on Jan. 1. Starting then, authorities can begin seizing people's exotic animals if they fail to obtain permits for them, a process that includes paying to implant microchips.
The change comes after a Zanesville man released dozens of his animals in 2011 before committing suicide. Authorities killed most of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public's safety.
Since the law's passage, The Columbus Dispatch reports (http://bit.ly/16HRTKu) that private owners have registered 361 animals, mostly primates, tigers, bears and alligators. Beginning Oct. 1, and before Jan. 1, owners must obtain and pay for a permit to keep their animals.
Permits cost $250 for one to three animals and up to $1,000 for 11 to 15 animals. Owners also must obtain liability insurance or a surety bond of $200,000 to $1 million.
Ohio Agriculture Director David Daniels said the state is ready for an influx of animals and that every new call about an exotic animal prepares them for what's to come.
The seven animals that briefly stayed at the state facility in Reynoldsburg in the past four months mostly were relinquished by owners who said they could no longer keep them, but one alligator was seized during a drug raid in Guernsey County.
To care for the animals, facility workers using state dollars have bought chicken breasts, corn, fruit, vegetables and nuts to feed them. They've also bought a kiddie pool for the alligators and a 30-pound bouncy ball for the bears.
One alligator owner sent along a note with his reptile saying that fed it dog food, doughnuts, pizza, chocolate milk and soda. State animal workers transitioned the animal to a more nutritious diet but had to throw in doughnuts at first to get the animal to eat.
There's still a chance that the law could be put on hold as a result of a lawsuit pending in the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The suit, filed by seven animal owners, argues that the law infringes on their constitutional rights and would result in an unfair taking of their property, the animals.
U.S. District Judge George Smith sided with the state in upholding the law last year.
Delaware lawyer Robert Owens, who is representing the owners, said the permit process is "a sham" and the requirements forced on owners are "more stringent and astronomically more expensive" than standards required by national associations for small zoos and menageries.
"The hangman's noose is there for these owners," Owens said. "No member of the public has ever been hurt by these animals. Why are we destroying businesses and seizing personal property?"
Tim Harrison, a retired firefighter and paramedic from the Dayton area who runs an animal-rescue group called Outreach for Animals, has been busy helping to find animals and relocating them to new homes outside Ohio.
"A lot of the good people who have these animals have stepped forward," he said. "But there are some people who are thumbing their nose at the law, saying, 'Come and get me.'"
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com