Ohio board OKs $3.5 million for exotic animal housing

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A state panel on Monday approved spending up to $3.5 million to construct a facility that could temporarily house dozens of exotic animals confiscated under a new Ohio law.

The state Controlling Board, which handles certain adjustments to the state budget, voted 6-1 to approve the Ohio Department of Agriculture's request for the money after board members raised concerns about approving the funding ahead of planned public meetings about the facility. The request includes $2.93 million to construct the warehouse-type building on the department's campus in a rural part of Reynoldsburg, just east of Columbus.

Owners must start registering exotic animals such as lions, tigers and some snakes under the law that came about after an eastern Ohio man released 50 animals, including black bears, mountain lions and tigers, from his farm in Zanesville last October. Officials can seize animals if the owners don't meet state requirements or are found housing animals without permits.

"This isn't something anybody is happy about," said Republican Rep. Jay Hottinger of Newark, who is on the board. "But the fact of the matter is, what we can't do is we can't risk maintaining the status quo."

State officials envision creating a facility that would have movable cages and could house 40 to 60 animals until permanent homes are found for them at sanctuaries or other sites or until their owners make changes to meet state requirements and take back their animals, department Director David Daniels told the board before the vote. He said the facility would be surrounded by fences -- an 8- to 12-foot chain-link fence for containment, an outer fence around that and a third fence in place around the larger property. The animals would be monitored by video surveillance and ODA employees, and the facility would not be open to other people.

"I believe we are quite capable, with those procedures in place, to secure any animal that we might have to take care of for a period of time," Daniels told the board.

Daniels acknowledged that there are many unanswered questions, including the number of exotic animals covered by the law, how long the state might have to keep those that are confiscated and how much that could cost.

He said state officials are aware of hundreds of exotic animals in Ohio but believe there could be thousands. He said that operating the facility could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and that it would be designed so it could be used for other purposes once the state no longer needs the housing for the animals.

The dissenting vote on the funding issue came from Rep. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat who said he found it unreasonable and premature to decide on state money for the facility because there had been little public notice and because public meetings on the issue are planned in the coming weeks.

Daniels said it was critical to get the funding approved so that design and construction work could begin quickly.

State officials had looked at multiple other options, including sending the animals to zoos, sanctuaries or other wildlife areas, but Daniels said they began discussing the construction of a storage facility in more detail about a month ago, after it became clear other partnerships likely wouldn't work out.
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