Ohio city council says it was mistaken to include hamsters, other common pets in exotic animal ban

ALEX M. PARKER , Morning Journal Writer
09/19/2006

ELYRIA — When Elyria City Council passed an exotic animal ban two weeks ago, the vote came quickly, and with no discussion. Now the animal ban is arguably the most talked-about issue in the city.
Several council members are having second thoughts about their votes, claiming they only barely read the ordinance before voting ”Aye.” And one councilman urged residents to bring their pets to last night’s meeting in protest.

Several council members said they erred in passing a ban on “exotic animals” that included a provision barring anyone from owning a “fowl or animal” within 500 feet of another person.

The law excluded only cats and dogs from the last provision — not hamsters, gerbils, Guinea pigs, rabbits, goldfish or the many other animals city-dwellers often keep.

Councilman Herman Larkins, D-5, who proposed the legislation for the Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, said he’d now like to see a more broad exclusion for pets.

“We’re not infallible,” said Larkins. “We make mistakes.”

The law hasn’t yet taken effect, and the committee plans to discuss the issue again and revise the ordinance before it’s on the law books.

The issue has raised sparked controversy among both residents and elected officials.

Councilman Gary Gibbs, R-3, said he encouraged those opposed to the law to come to council — and bring their pets.

Those who followed his advice were met by two police officers at the City Hall doors, who wouldn’t let any animals in.

After the meeting, Mayor Bill Grace claimed Gibbs was trying to “make a mockery of things” by bringing pets into the council chamber.

“Any rational person would recognize it’s inappropriate,” Grace said. “For an elected official to invite people to do just that is a case in point, that his motives are often to cause disruption.”

Gibbs said he didn’t see any problem with residents bringing pets to council.

“I don’t know why the mayor stopped them,” said Gibbs. “I think we should be a public-friendly city. I don’t see any problem or issue with that.

“(Grace) needs to take responsibility for it as much as council,” said Gibbs. “He’s the one that signed a foolish law.”

The law was signed on Sept. 6, one day after it was passed by the entire council — including Gibbs. The law was written by the city law department. Gibbs admitted he hadn’t read the “catch-all” section relating to farm animals and pets.

Assistant Law Director Michael Szekely said he based the ordinance on several exotic animal bans already on the books in other cities.

The law bans “exotic animals,” including alligators and crocodiles longer than 30 inches, poisonous animals, piranha fish, bears, leopards and tigers, and only excludes “licensed pet shops, menageries, zoological gardens and circuses.”

While one piranha-owner spoke up last night, most of the residents’ ire has been focused on the ordinance’s second part, which sets limits on other pets.

“No person shall keep, harbor, or maintain, any horse, mule, cattle, sheep, goat, swine, rabbit, chicken, goose or other fowl or animal, except a dog or cat, within 500 feet of the inhabited dwelling of any other person,” the ordinance reads.

Larkins read a law from the city of Newark, which excluded from its limitations hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, goldfish, parakeets and several other common pets. He said he hoped to see a similar provision in an exotic animal ban.

He said he only glanced at the second provision and now admits he was wrong.

Other City Council members admitted they hadn’t looked at the law closely or considered what it would affect.

“I can’t say I didn’t read it,” said Bonnie Ivancic, D-4, who also sits on the Public Safety Committee. “I was just uninformed.”

She said she didn’t realize it would affect programs such as 4-H, where children raise goats and other animals for the county fair and other events.

Elyria resident Deborah Zerbini spoke at the meeting to defend 4-H, noting that the only way for local youth to apply is to raise an animal at home.

Zerbini also questioned some of the law’s provisions. “My son can have a crocodile less than 30 inches long, but he can’t own a rabbit?” she asked.

The ordinance was passed “under suspension of rules,” which allows council members to pass the ordinance immediately rather than after readings at three meetings as required by the city charter. A majority of council must vote to suspend the rules, and the three readings are often avoided by council to keep things running smoothly.

Gibbs said council might want to review how it passes legislation.

“Maybe if we would have had all three readings, we would have had more public input,” Gibbs said.

Mayor Bill Grace disagreed, claiming council shouldn’t change its procedures just because of one case.

“It think it’s been blown far out of proportion,” Grace said. “We should be thankful that this is the most controversial thing in Elyria city government right now.”

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