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Q&A: Exotic animals 5 years later

By JOHN SEEWER Associated Press Published: October 18, 2016 4:00 AM
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When a suicidal man released dozens of lions, tigers and bears from his Ohio farm in 2011, the state's rules on exotic animals were among the weakest in the nation.

No one had any idea how many exotic pets were living in backyard cages and barns across the state. New restrictions took effect within a year.

Today marks five years since Terry Thompson released his 50 animals before he killed himself. Authorities in Zanesville killed nearly all of the animals out of fear for public safety.

What has happened under the new state regulations:

How many exotic animals are still out there?

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Ohio now bans residents from buying new dangerous, wild animals, but those who had tigers, bears, alligators and other animals before the new regulations took effect can keep them as long as they have a permit. The number of exotic animals has been dropping each year since permits were first required in 2014 -- from 218 animals two years ago to 181 this year, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Owners with permits have decreased too -- from 64 to 47 currently.

What kind of animals are left?

Most of the animals still under private ownership are of the big cat variety: there are 32 tigers, 23 lions, 17 cougars and 15 bobcats. There also are 19 macaques (monkeys), 14 black bears and nine alligators.

Could there be more?

The state's agriculture department acknowledges there could be someone who still has a bear or a Burmese python without a permit. But assistant state veterinarian Melissa Simmerman says the department regularly gets complaints about animals and investigates those.

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Where have the animals gone?

Many private owners moved their exotic pets out of state to animal sanctuaries before the new permits were required, Simmerman says. A few older animals have died and some have been given up voluntarily because their owners can't afford to house and feed them. Others have been seized by the state over allegations that the owners did not have the required permits or were not complying with stricter rules.

How many have been seized?

The state says 162 animals have been seized or voluntarily surrendered to the agriculture department and temporarily housed in its holding facility just outside of Columbus.

Of those, 148 have been sent to animal sanctuaries or rescues in states including Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, South Dakota and Tennessee.

Haven't some owners challenged the seizures?

Yes, a couple of owners are seeking help from the courts to get their exotic animals back. One is claiming she should be exempt because she operated a wildlife rehabilitation facility with a different permit for educational purposes. Another owner says the state treated him differently than other owners and didn't give him extra time to complete the permit process. The state says it acted within its legal rights in both cases.

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