Exotic Animal Owners Worry About New Restrictions

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Marion County backyard where black bears are kept.(Photo: Photo: Debbie Holmes)
Marion County backyard where black bears are kept.(Photo: Photo: Debbie Holmes)

Owning an exotic animal in Ohio may be outlawed if some animal rights groups get their way. This year Governor Ted Strickland reached an agreement with the Humane Society to develop new regulations that would ban or restrict ownership of wild and exotic animals.

The Mid Ohio Exotic Animal Sale in Holmes County happens 3 times a year. Exotic animals like rhesus and grivet monkeys go for several hundred dollars each.

The animals are under 20 pounds when sold. They are small and appear as harmless as any normal pet. Sometimes black bears are auctioned, along with wildebeest, camels and zebras but there were none of those at this sale. There were several cats up for bid.

“We have Taucky, a 10 month old male African serval. He’s been bottle raised and litter-box trained. He loves honey ham as a treat and to play fetch. He’s up to date on his shots and vaccinations, and he likes to hiss a lot.”

Auctions like this could change or disappear under the proposed rule changes. Manager of the auction, Thurman Mullet says he understands people’s worries about exotic animals. “The animals that we’re talking about, I’m not talking about the rhesus monkeys, but the bears, on the bear line those are very dangerous. I mean they are nice, cute and cuddly what we sell 20 pounds, under 20 pounds, very nice and cute and cuddly, but in 3 or 4 months, 5 months, they no longer are that cute, cuddly pet, explained Mullet.”

Mullet worries more about irresponsible owners. He requires any buyer to have a USDA license to purchase an exotic animal, which may hurt sales since such a license is not required in Ohio. “There are several sellers that are very upset about it because people are allowed to buy a small rhesus or that grivet we were looking at. They are allowed to buy that as a pet and a USDA license is not required to buy that,” said Mullet.

Owner of an animal sanctuary in western New York State, Wayde Forster comes to the auction once a year. He cares for baby mountain lions, a bear, wolf, and some coyotes. Forster could support changes to ownership.

“Some yes, but if they were going to try to ban all of them what do you do? What do you do with all the animals? It just goes underground. People just stop getting permits, just raise the stuff in their backyard,” said Forster.

Under current Ohio Law, people possessing non-domestic animals do not need a permit. President of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle says Ohio needs to tighten up its rules.

“Ohio has been a free for all. It’s in the wild west with respect to the possession of dangerous wild animals as pets, said Pacelle.

Pacelle says the organization warned about the dangers in Ohio before a 24 year old man in Lorain County was killed in August by a captive black bear he was feeding.

“It’s one thing to keep a dog or cat, it’s another thing to keep an African lion or an anaconda or a black bear as a pet. These animals don’t belong in our basements or backyards. It’s inhumane for them and it’s dangerous for people,” added Pacelle.

In Marion County a group of black bears lives in a large pen surrounded by a larger fence. The bears’ owner Mike Stapleton would not let me on the property, but he spoke to me by phone. Stapleton says he takes good care of his 6 black bears and 5 tigers. “I’m in a position to help these animals, I like it and I’m going to do it,” said Stapleton.

Stapleton says his animals come from former owners who did not understand the work involved to have an exotic pet.

“They don’t think about certain things like how big the animal is going to get and its needs as it grows. Yes they will bite and you know you just have to be careful in what you’re doing. Never let your guard down,” warned Stapleton. Stapleton set up a non-profit organization to accept donations of money and food to care for the bears and tigers. He does not feel keeping them on his property poses a threat to neighbors. There are only two homes adjacent to Stapleton’s. A neighbor who lives about 50 yards from Stapleton says the animals don’t worry her. Down the road, at the Central Ohio Farmer’s Co-Op, Feed mill manager, Jim Wellhausen says Stapleton has taken all of the precautions necessary.

“You walk along that railroad you can hear the bears in there they’re playing, whatever they’re doing, but they never seem to bother anybody,” said Wellhausen. Wellhausen adds regulations though are necessary so people don’t act irresponsibly.

“There should be guidelines for everybody, if you keep a wild animal I don’t care if it’s in town on the farm or whatever, there should be set guidelines that people follow,” said Wellhausen.

Stapleton is a member of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners which opposes the agreement reached by the Ohio Farm Bureau, the Governor, and the Humane Society. The agreement does allow current owners to be grandfathered in, but they could not breed or buy new animals. A special committee will hear public comment on the proposal before Ohio lawmakers decide if sales of exotic animals will be banned.