Judge hears testimony about Ohio exotic animal law

ANN SANNER Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- An animal owner told a federal judge on Monday that abiding by Ohio's new regulations on exotic creatures would put some of her animals' lives in danger and take away thousands of dollars from her business.

Cyndi Huntsman is one of four owners who are suing the state over its crackdown on possessing wild animals, claiming the law violates their property and First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit had its first hearing Monday before Judge George Smith in Columbus.

Ohio officials have defended the law as a common sense measure to address the growing public safety problem of private ownership of exotics animals.

State lawmakers worked with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen the state's regulations after a suicidal owner released dozens of creatures last year from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville. Authorities killed 48 of the animals, which included black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public's safety.

The law required owners to register their restricted animals with the state by Nov. 5. It also directs the owners to have their dangerous creatures implanted with a microchip before registration, so the wildlife can be identified if they get lost or escape.

The owners have taken issue with the microchip requirement, contending it puts animals' health at risk because of the anesthesia required for the procedure. They fear animals with health problems or those who are older won't wake up from sedation.

Huntsman likened the microchip requirement to a death sentence for some of her creatures.

"I'll fight as long as I have to not to (microchip)," she told the court.

A veterinarian who cares for exotic animals in Oklahoma criticized the procedure as "cruel and unjustified" in some cases.

Dr. JoAnne Green, who said she was paid $4,000 to appear on the owners' behalf, told the court that she has implanted microchips in more than a thousand animals, but still had concerns about tagging exotic creatures.

In a follow-up interview with The Associated Press, Green clarified that she had implanted hundreds of animals.

The state has argued in court documents that a microchip is "no larger than one or two grains of rice" and is typically injected in a minimally invasive procedure.

"The microchipping process is not any different in substance from (and indeed is less invasive than) vaccinating an animal," attorneys for the state wrote in filings earlier this month.

While the law took effect in September, some aspects have yet to kick in. For instance, a permit process for owners won't begin until next October.

Current owners who want to keep their animals must obtain the new state-issued permit by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds, and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and care for it. Otherwise, they will be banned from having them.

One of the factors of obtaining a state permit includes timely registration.

If owners are denied permits or can't meet the new requirements, the state can seize the animals.

Huntsman said she couldn't imagine handing over her animals to the state if she couldn't meet the new regulations.

"They're what we do," she said. "They're our life."

Huntsman cares for more than 200 animals at Stump Hill Farm near Massillon, where she exhibits tropical birds, primates and big cats and offers educational programs to schoolchildren and the elderly. Huntsman's animals also have been featured in television shows, commercials and magazine photo shoots. She also breeds certain species.

Huntsman estimates that she'd lose about $60,000 annually because of the state's law. "With this ban, I have no buyers," she said.

The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.

The owners also contend that joining the groups to get an exemption from the law means they would have to associate and fund organizations with which they disagree.

"They have a way of thinking that I do not," Huntsman told the court.

Other owners in the lawsuit are Terry Wilkins, who owns a reptile and amphibian store called Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus; Mike Stapleton, owner of Paws & Claws Animal Sanctuary in Prospect; and Sean Trimbach, owner of Best Exotics LLC in Medway, where he breeds, raises and sells exotic animals.