Ohio to house seized exotic animals

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio officials want to build a state facility that would temporarily house potentially dozens of exotic animals confiscated under a new law that is about to take effect.

A price tag is still being calculated, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Agriculture told The Associated Press on Thursday. And a legislative committee would have to approve the funds.

Any seized animals, which could range from long constricting snakes to Bengal tigers, would be cared for under the supervision of the state veterinarian, said Erica Pitchford, the department's spokeswoman.

The proposal comes as the state prepares to crack down on owners of exotic animals, without yet knowing exactly how many lions, leopards, bears and other creatures are living in the state.

The facility would be built at the department's campus in a rural part of Reynoldsburg, just outside Columbus, Pitchford said.

The department's offices are near those of the state fire marshal and close to fields. While the entire campus is already fenced, the state would erect more fencing around the animal facility and possibly hire a security guard.

"This is not going to be a threat to our employees, just like it won't be a threat to our neighbors," Pitchford said. "It will be well built, it will be very secure, and it will be well looked after."

State officials had looked at multiple other options, including sending the animals to zoos, sanctuaries or other wildlife areas. All ideas were all rejected in a favor of a single facility, Pitchford said. That way, the state could minimize transportation and the chance that something would go wrong with the animals.

Plus, Pitchford said, the agency also wanted to take advantage of the expertise that had on site to care for the animals.

"At least if they are here, they are being looked after properly," she said.

The building is being designed so that it can be converted to other uses, once the state no longer needs the housing for the animals. Additional details, such as the structure's dimensions, are still being worked out and reviewed by the state's architect.

Pitchford noted the state intends to meet the same caging standards it's requiring of owners under the new law.

Cages and secured fencing isn't cheap, Pitchford acknowledged. "And we're not going to skirt on this."

Officials plan to submit their request for funding to the state's Controlling Board on Friday.

Ohio's restrictions on exotic pets have been among the nation's weakest.

Efforts to strengthen the law took on new urgency after owner Terry Thompson released 50 animals, including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers, from his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville in October, then committed suicide.

Authorities killed 48 of the animals as a public safety measure. Two others were believed to have been eaten by other animals.

The new law, which takes effect on Sept. 3, will immediately ban people from buying new dangerous exotic animals, such as cheetahs and crocodiles. Current owners could keep their creatures by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014. They would have to pass a background check, pay permit fees, obtain liability insurance and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and adhere to other standards.

Ohio officials can seize the animals if owners don't meet the state's requirements or are found housing an animal without a permit.

Within 60 days after the bill's effective date, owners would have to have microchips implanted in their dangerous wildlife and register the animals. They also will have to tell the state where the animals are, how many they have, what the creatures look like and who their veterinarian is, among other details.

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