COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio lawmaker is proposing that owners of exotic animals be subjected to background checks and required to fence their property — measures supporters say might have saved dozens of lions, tigers, and other wild creatures that were shot by authorities months ago after their suicidal owner let them loose.
Legislation introduced Thursday would ban new ownership of exotic animals in the state and immediately prohibit people from acquiring new or additional dangerous wildlife.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen state law took on new urgency in October when authorities were forced to hunt down and kill 48 wild animals — including endangered Bengal tigers — after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.
State Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville Republican, said owner Terry Thompson would not have passed the background check in his bill for an ownership permit because Thompson had been convicted of a felony. Thompson had spent time in federal prison for possessing unregistered weapons.
If Balderson's legislation becomes law, owners with felony convictions would be ineligible for special state permits to possess wild animals.
Balderson told The Associated Press that he has tried to find a balance that protects the public and the rights of property owners.
"There are good people out there that do this," Balderson said in a telephone interview. "I don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction, and overreact to something that happened that was very unfortunate."
"The animals didn't get out, they were let out," Balderson added.
The governor and Columbus Zoo support his plan.
Owners of lions, tigers and other large animals such as elephants and crocodiles would be banned in 2014 from keeping the creatures unless they acquired a wildlife shelter permit from the state. They would have to meet new caging requirements, obtain insurance, microchip the animals and adhere to strict care standards. Owners also would have to register their animals within 60 days of the law's effective date.
Zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities would be exempt.
The bill would let owners of constricting and venomous snakes keep their reptiles, but they must have safety plans in place in case the snakes got out. Owners could still breed and acquire new snakes.
The proposed caretaking standards would require owners to have an 8-foot-tall perimeter fence around their property, just as zoos do.
Tom Stalf, the Columbus Zoo's chief operating officer, said Thompson's farm had a 3-foot-tall livestock fence — not high enough to prevent the animals from running away once they were out of their cages.
"If there were a perimeter fence in place around the facility, we would have a better outcome," Stalf said. "It's very possible they would have still been contained, and we would have been able to recover them alive."
The bill also would allow state officials to better grasp how many dangerous wild animals and owners reside in Ohio, he said.
Stalf, whose input was included in the bill, said the zoo has taken issue with an exemption that would allow a northeast Ohio school to display a dangerous wild animal as a sports mascot.
Each year, a new tiger cub serves as the mascot for the football team at Washington High School in Massillon. "Obie" is a 43-year-tradition, said principal Brad Warner.
Under the legislation, the school would have to care for the animal throughout its lifespan, obtain a $1 million insurance policy that would cover any injuries or property damage, and confine the tiger to a cage that does not permit physical contact.
Warner said he wasn't immediately sure whether the school could meet the standards, but the booster club that pays for the cub would do what it takes to maintain the tradition.
Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna has criticized Ohio lawmakers for not swiftly passing new regulations.
Hanna, a former Columbus Zoo director, has bristled at the idea of some owners being allowed to keep their animals because they would be grandfathered into any ban. A zoo spokeswoman said Hanna is supportive of the bill overall.
The head of the Humane Society of the United States called the measure "a vast improvement" for Ohio, but expressed concern that it would allow people to acquire large constricting snakes and exempt certain facilities associated with the Zoological Association of America.
"If we want a comprehensive law covering dangerous and exotic animals, we must fortify some portions of this proposal," said Wayne Pacelle, the organization's president and CEO, in a written statement.
A hearing on Balderson's legislation is planned for next week.
The proposal is less strict than a framework suggested last year by a state study committee that Gov. John Kasich convened in April.
The group had recommended a more stringent ban on the casual ownership of exotic animals, which called for the confiscation of any wildlife kept by anyone lacking the proper licenses or exemptions in 2014.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said Thursday the administration had reached an agreement with the Senate on Balderson's proposal, and the governor is comfortable with it. He said in an email the new standards couldn't be met by casual owners of exotic wildlife, a group he said is more inclined to have problems with the dangerous animals.
"It's admittedly not everything we sought or that the working group recommended, but it's most of it and such a huge improvement from where Ohio has been that the governor is comfortable moving forward," Nichols said.