CLEVELAND - The exotic animal release this week in Zanesville has called into question state and federal laws on ownership. It's also left many people wondering how many exotic pets there are in Ohio, and how owners get these animals in the first place.
There is no way to know how many exotic pets there are in this country, and while officials admit there is a black market for trade, they say it is near impossible to track.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency oversees imports and exports of live animals. Sandy Cleva with the agency said most of the exotic animals in the U.S. under private ownership are not imported – they are bred from animals already here.
Cleva added the agency ensures animals are humanely transported when entering or leaving the country and if someone is bringing in a non-native North American animal into the country, they have to ship the animal through a designated port.
"There are many rules," Cleva said, "For example, no monkeys, no nursing animals, no physically ill animals can be transported. Cages have to be so big."
The animals already here fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Private exotic pet owners are not required to have a license, but licenses are required if the owner exhibits, breeds or sells the animal. In those cases, where public interaction is involved, agents will issue citations if inspections fall short of federal standards.
"It's an unfortunate situation that these loopholes are created," said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA . "That's really what allows people like (Terry Thompson) to keep animals. He's not importing, he's not exhibiting, so he falls through the cracks."
Roberts believes a combination of state and federal laws would help prevent private pet ownership, and the illegal trade of exotic animals.
"At federal level, legislation would make it a lot more difficult to move animals across state lines if they will be kept as pets," Roberts said. At the state level, legislation could ban keeping exotic animals as pets, he added.
The Humane Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for the expiration of a statewide ban on buying and selling exotic pets, which passed in April. The Humane Society is urging an emergency rule to crack down on exotic animals until strong legislation is in place.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.
Born Free USA tracks incidents with exotic animals across the country every day. In the recent past in Ohio, there have been incidents involving snakes, a kangaroo and a monkey.
In September, a kangaroo attacked a man for 15 minutes at an exotic-animal farm in Green Camp, near Marion. In Freemont, a pet grivet monkey got loose and scratched two young girls. There are many more bizarre stories of exotic animals in the group's database, including a Cincinnati family who found a python in their backyard last year. An incident in northeast Ohio last year was deadly. Brent Kandra, 24, was fatally mauled while feeding a bear on the property of the late Sam Mazzola in Columbia Station.
"There's always going to be something like this happening when we allow people to keep these animals privately," Roberts said.
It appears to be relatively easy to buy a lion, tiger or bear. In 10 minutes, a Google search revealed several websites with classified ads for such sales, including gotpetsonline.com and petsforsale.org among many others.
Some experts said the illegal trafficking of exotic animals is worth billions of dollars.
Copley Police Chief Mike Mier recalled the highly publicized case in his jurisdiction. An animal farm there had 53 cats, 18 bears, and an assortment of livestock. It took him and his department years to shut it down.
"There was an area where they were butchering food for the animals and the health department took issue with that," Mier said. So did the neighbors, because of the foul smell. He added the animals' treatment was inhumane and described what he saw.
"There were animals laying in their own waste and there were animal carcasses (from feeding) left in the cages." Mier also said the cages themselves were deplorable. "Some cages had holes that were fixed with plywood and it was a danger to the public."
In the Copley case, the USDA did several inspections that did result in citations. But after the owner fixed the violations, conditions would eventually deteriorate again, resulting in more citations. The police department got involved in 2000, but it wasn't until 2008 when the last of the exotic pets were taken from the property.
"That's the frustrating thing – it took so long," Mier said. "But unfortunately, when you deal with
federal agencies things move much slower."
Mier believes the owner in this case did care about the animals, but simply got in over his head. The chief investigated where the animals came from, and he has some ideas, but he never had any evidence of illegal trafficking.
"There is an alleged black market for these animals," Mier said. "But it's usually more for the animals' pelts than people buying them as pets."
Regardless of whether exotic pet ownership comes from the black market, people like Roberts of Born Free USA keep fighting to make it illegal, for the safety to the animals, and the public.
"What is it going to take – someone getting killed?" Roberts said. "Because these things do happen."