Marion Ohio considers Exotic Pet Ban

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Pet or threat? Marion wary of wild animals
City might ban exotic critters; Ohio pushed to follow suit
Thursday, July 06, 2006


Diana McCourt plays with Ekaterina, a Siberian tiger, on her farm in Knox County. As director of the Siberian Tiger Conservation Association, McCourt favors allowing individuals to own exotic animals.
Holly Hillebrecht, a senior biology major at the University of Akron, checks the pulse of Sierra, a white Bengal tiger.

If Marion City Councilman Scott Schertzer gets his way, elephants will never munch on local lawns and sharks will never swim in backyard pools.

Got a hyena? It will have to go, too. And don’t even think about harboring a hippopotamus.

All will become outlaws under an exotic-animal ban expected to be approved by the City Council on Monday.

It will make Marion the latest of several central Ohio communities — including Columbus and Franklin County — to either limit or ban private ownership of exotic animals and wildlife.

“Who wants to live with lions, tigers and bears in their next-door neighbor’s backyard?” asked Schertzer, who brought the issue before the council. “The people of Marion don’t, I can tell you that.”

Marion’s debate comes as the Humane Society of the United States increasingly pressures Ohio officials to bar private ownership of creatures such as lions, tigers, monkeys, bears and poisonous snakes.

Spurred by recent news stories of privately owned wild animals getting into trouble, the organization sent a letter to Gov. Bob Taft on June 1, urging a statewide ban.

Taft hasn’t responded yet, said Michael Markarian, the society’s executive vice president.

“There is a growing epidemic of people owning dangerous and exotic animals as pets, and Ohio is certainly a focal point right now,” Markarian said. “These animals have wild instincts and that’s where they should be: in the wild. We hope Gov. Taft and the rest of Ohio come to understand that.”

Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said any discussion about a ban would involve the Ohio Department of Natural Resources; he suggested the society go there.

At least 24 states have some form of ban on private ownership of such animals. The society aims to protect them and keep them in their natural habitat, Markarian said, but wants to protect the public even more.

Several incidents have put Ohio on the radar screen:

• On May 22, a bear escaped its enclosure at a breeding farm in Ashtabula County and attacked a neighbor. It was legally owned; the state issues permits for ownership of animals native to Ohio.

• Two days later, a fire killed a grizzly-bear cub, two tiger cubs and two iguanas at a long-embattled exotic-animal farm in Summit County.

• In September, Marion resident Michael Jolliff nearly died after being bitten by a Western diamondback rattler, one of about 200 snakes the breeder had in his home.

• In July 2005, a macaque monkey escaped its owner in Noble County, then jumped into a nearby pickup truck and bit a man.

Such incidents unfairly blemish all owners of exotic animals, said Diana McCourt. She runs the Siberian Tiger Conservation Association, a nonprofit school in Knox County that primarily serves as a training ground for zoology and animal-science students.

McCourt has three Siberian tigers, a Bengal tiger and two African lions on 32 acres near Martinsburg.

She used to allow the public on her farm, but the federal government accused her of animal abuse, and in 2002, she reached a settlement in which she agreed to operate solely as a training ground.

McCourt said she is troubled by renewed talk of a statewide ban on exotic animals.

“I agree the community has some right to restrict what moves in next door to people,” she said. “But there are plenty of legitimate, knowledgeable owners of animals out there who do things right, and they should all be allowed to take care of what they have.”

Education, not prohibition, is the answer, she said. With strict regulation and licensing, exoticanimal owners could be required to take classes, she said.

“People see a fuzzy, cute little cub and they take it home,” she said. “Next thing you know, they have a lion who wants to run wild and they don’t know what to do.”

Markarian disagrees. He estimates that people privately own 7,000 tigers and 15,000 primates in the United States.

“You can issue a thousand permits and inspect a thousand times, but if that animal gets out and kills someone, an inspection won’t bring anyone back,” he said.

Schertzer said he recognizes that enforcement of a ban will be a problem. He’d like to hire an animal-control officer to help, but there’s no money for it in the city budget, he said.

Under the proposed law, owners would have until July 2007 to get rid of their animals. After that, they would face a third-degree misdemeanor charge and the animals would be taken.

Mike Stapleton, who runs Paws and Claws Exotic Animal Sanctuary in rural Marion County, is preparing himself for more business if the law is enacted.

Stapleton has five bears and three tigers at his farm near Waldo, all rescued from private owners who could no longer care for them. He said he doesn’t think a ban is right.

“I know there are people out there who get these animals and can’t handle them or mistreat them, but that happens with dogs and cats, too. This is America, and you should be able to own what you want.”

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