Wild-animal case languished nearly 3 years
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Plain Dealer Reporter
Akron — As federal inspectors issued citation after citation accusing Lorenza Pearson of raising exotic animals in deplorable conditions at his Cop ley Township farm, he was immune from sanctions because it took almost three years for officials to resume a hearing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a complaint against Pearson and the L&L Exotic Animal Farm in 2002, but the process to revoke his license stagnated after the hearing was temporarily halted in September 2003. When the hearing resumed Tuesday, Pearson faced 953 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, from February 1997 through February 2006.
Federal officials cited scheduling problems and the need to appoint a new administrative judge to hear the case as reasons for the delay.
Pearson and his attorney, William Whitaker, maintain that the Copley Township facility is safe for animals and people.
Federal officials said they removed seven bears in May 2005 because of lack of adequate food and veterinary care, and a Summit County judge ordered the removal of 27 exotic cats, including tigers and lions, in 2004 because of poor handling of animal waste.
During a Feb. 22 visit, a federal inspector reported Pearson had 18 animals: eight bears, six tigers, two lions, a black leopard and cougar. The inspector believed Pearson was hiding more, he wrote in a complaint.
Violations cited in that visit, which were similar to citations from previous inspections, included holes in a perimeter fence. Animals were not being fed well; were kept in pens that were unsafe and too small; and were not receiving adequate food and water, the complaint says.
The inspector said he failed to adequately care for a black leopard and a female tiger with a lame hind leg. The only food for the 10 large cats was a dead animal that was contaminated with dirt, hay and feces, records show.
Pearson was notified in October 2005 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it intended to terminate his Animal Welfare Act license. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied renewal of his captive-bred wildlife registration in February 2004.
Even if Judge Victor Palmer rules his license should be revoked, Pearson can appeal, with the license remaining in effect until appeals are exhausted, a federal lawyer said.
Pearson’s operation has come under increasing scrutiny following the unrelated May 22 escape of a 500-pound black bear from an Ashtabula County animal compound. The bear mauled a 36-year-old woman. Two days later a fire ignited by a space heater in an iguana terrarium destroyed Pearson’s Columbus Avenue home and killed a bear cub, two tiger cubs, two iguanas and many birds.
The farm made national news in 1983 when Pearson’s 2-year-old son was killed by a Bengal tiger.
Ohio law provides virtually no oversight of wild-animal breeders. Some legislators have said they will introduce a bill calling for regulations.
The Animal Protection Institute, a national advocacy organization, asked legislators Monday to ban ownership of dangerous wild and exotic animals in Ohio. It said owners allow people to have direct contact with dangerous animals.
While people are in danger, the animals are also suffering because of poor care, Zibby Wilder, spokeswoman for the agency, said Tuesday.
She said that the USDA does not have enough inspectors and that the Pearson case illustrates how the government does not act, even after years of violations.
"Even when they are inspected, they are given a fine or have a hearing and nothing happens," she said. "It’s not a priority until someone gets hurt."
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