Some Question Ohio Animal Abuse Laws

Ohio authorities spent much of Wednesday tracking down a pack of wild animals, including lions, tigers, bears and wolves. They'd been let go by their owner, who then committed suicide. Many questions are surfacing about why Ohio has such lax laws that allow a convicted criminal to have dozens of exotic animals.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. In Ohio, people are asking tough questions about the state's animal protection laws after authorities shot and killed dozens of tigers, lions, bears and monkeys. The animals' owner had set them free from their pens before killing himself on Tuesday. Now there are calls to strengthen the state's laws to protect animals.

Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles reports.

JO INGLES: When county sheriffs' deputies arrived at a home near Zanesville Tuesday night, they encountered large, dangerous, exotic animals that were roaming free outside the fence of the property. Deputies shot and killed the creatures. Columbus Zoo employees tried to capture the animals, but Jack Hanna, director emeritus, says that wasn't possible in most cases.

JACK HANNA: The sheriff did the right thing. I know we have animal rights groups giving me threatening calls right now, all sorts of things. My gosh, Jack Hanna this. What was he to do at nighttime with tigers and lions, leopards?

INGLES: By Wednesday morning, some animals were still missing. Local schools cancelled classes so children wouldn't be attacked while waiting for a bus or walking to school.

At the end of the day, a total of 49 animals had been killed. Their owner, who was released from prison in May and had a history of animal abuse, was also dead.

This has Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States asking this question.

WAYNE PACELLE: How bad does it have to get or how lax are your rules to allow a convicted animal abuser, a convicted felon, to have these animals on his private home?

INGLES: Pacelle says Ohio's animal protection laws are the weakest in the nation and he says the state's new governor, John Kasich, made matters worse. Pacelle says the owner's animal cruelty convictions alone would have banned him from owning exotics if Kasich had kept an executive order issued by former Governor Ted Strickland. It had banned the sale or transfer of exotic animals.

Here's Bill Damschroder with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

BILL DAMSCHRODER: Rather than try to do a rush job to maintain an administrative rule that we didn't think had legal standing, the idea was to back off, deal with the practical considerations that came up and go through the working group process that we're using now to create something that can be workable.

INGLES: Damschroder says, even if the order had been kept intact, it wouldn't have prevented this tragedy. But pressure is mounting on state officials to make changes. Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich himself said the state needs tougher laws. He told the Newspaper Editorial Board that no one has dealt with this issue and he intends to do so in a comprehensive way.

Laura Jones with the Natural Resources Department says it will have recommendations soon.

LAURA JONES: The legislature will have a package early into the new year, we believe, and where it goes from there, you know, we will see.

INGLES: But Jack Advent with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association says that's not soon enough.

JACK ADVENT: There are certainly a lot of individuals who own dangerous and wild animals and that needs to be addressed because we have ticking time bombs basically sitting out there all over the state of Ohio.

INGLES: Advent says it's hard to tell how many exotic animals are being kept in Ohio right now since they are not registered or regulated. For NPR News, I'm Jo Ingles in Columbus.

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