Federal appeals court upholds Ohio exotic animal law

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld Ohio’s law restricting the ownership of exotic animals — denying a plea by owners, who alleged the law violates their free speech and free association rights.

Seven owners sued the state, claiming the new Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act — which took full effect Jan. 1 — will negatively impact their business of breeding and selling exotic animals, while compelling them to join exempted organizations they don’t support.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in favor of the state, after a federal judge in Columbus upheld the state law in 2012 when the initial lawsuit was filed.

“The burden of regulation may, unfortunately, fall heavier on some than on others, but that, without more, is not enough to render this Act unconstitutional,” Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons said in the opinion.

Sean Trimbach — owner of Best Exotics LLC in Medway and one of seven owners on the lawsuit — said the new state law cuts his income in half because he’ll now have to sell exotic animals outside the state. He owns 16 acres and about 350 animals, including 200 affected by the law.

Trimbach, who’s owned his business for five years, is pursuing Zoological Association of America accreditation, a process that could take up to three years but allows him to be exempt in the meantime, he said.

“They’re taking our businesses away without giving us any compensation,” Trimbach said. “They’re calling this a public safety law, but they’re shutting down businesses across the state to protect people who aren’t getting hurt.”

Before the state law was established, there were no regulations related to private citizens owning exotic animals, nor was there an inventory of exotics in the state.

During a two-month registration period in late 2012, 150 owners — private citizens and zoos — registered a total of 888 dangerous wild animals, according to the Department of Agriculture.

As of Tuesday, 21 permits have been issued, said Erica Hawkins, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The state is continuing to work with owners during the permitting process, she said.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased that the court upheld the initial ruling and upheld the constitutionality of the law,” Hawkins said. “We’ve felt strongly all along in what the law was intending to do and the need for it. Hopefully, with this second ruling, it reaffirms that this issue can be put to rest and we can move forward with focusing on the enforcement of the law.”

Tim Harrison, the director of Outreach For Animals, a nonprofit exotic animal rescue organization, said the court’s ruling was the “best thing that could happen for the people and animals.”

But the downside, he said, is animal owners will feel “victimized” and will “dig their heels in a little bit more and cause a little bit more upheaval.” There is the potential of owners abandoning or turning loose their animals, Harrison said.

Harrison has estimated that 90 percent of owners did not register their exotic animals. He said in Ohio there are 2,000 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars, and about 1,000 bears.

State officials have been phasing in aspects of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act since Gov. John Kasich signed the bill in June 2012. The first phase went into effect Sept. 5, 2012, prohibiting the sale or purchase of dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers and bears.

Owners of registered dangerous wild animals began applying for permits from the Department of Agriculture on Oct. 1, 2013.

The state legislation was sparked by an October 2011 Zanesville incident when Terry Thompson killed himself after setting 56 jungle cats and other dangerous exotic animals free in the Muskingum County countryside. Sheriff’s deputies killed 49 of the animals to prevent them from escaping into the community and harming citizens.

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