SPECIAL REPORT: Grizzly debate over exotic animals in Ohio

(FOX19) - Some call it the wild west of Ohio.

According to some animal advocates, the Buckeye state has some of the weakest laws in the country when it comes to owning exotic animals.

The issue was thrust to the forefront of lawmakers' minds last October after the incident in Zanesville. Police said Terry Thompson set free all of his wild animals just before he committed suicide. Authorities confirm 48 of them, including endangered Bengal tigers, were killed.

Governor John Kasich is looking to implement laws aimed at stopping private citizens from keeping or buying more exotic pets; it's a debate with several sides. Some owners said there should not be any laws. Those owners added it's their right and their purpose on this earth to care for the animals. Other owners and animal advocates told Fox19 there shouldn't be a blanket ban. Still, others said there should be a permit system. Lastly, some said it all comes down to one idea: if you have to use a gun to stop the animal because you're scared of it, it shouldn't be in your home.

FOX19 recently visited an exotic animal owner. The owner asked us not to reveal his hometown or use his last name to protect his family so we'll call him Daniel. He owns a mountain lion named "Canyon", a Bengal tiger named "Oxshay," and three bears: "Teddy Bear," his brother "Benjamin," and their dad "Hollywood."

"To me, they're more than just animals," said Daniel. "They're my children."

Daniel is a self-taught exotics owner. When he's not spending time with them, he's spending money on them.

"It's a house payment," said Daniel.

That's per month.

Daniel said he's doing this the legal way. He showed us permits for each animal. He believes his brood and other animals in homes across the state are in better hands with them than on their own.

"That's my biggest thing about the exotic ban," said Daniel. "If they pass this, where are these animals going to go?"

Damien Oxier knows the answer to that question, at least when it comes to reptiles. He runs Arrowhead Reptile Rescue. The organization provides homes to dozens of reptiles that were once abandoned or released by Tri-State owners. Members are for a ban on venomous snakes, but not on other snakes that they say are harmless.

"In the case of a ball python," said Oxier. "These are not an inappropriate pet. These are absolutely an appropriate pet for a child or a family to have."

Currently, Governor Kasich's task force is considering a blanket ban on exotic pets. If passed, it would kick in 20-14. That could mean owners of lions, tigers, crocodiles and many snakes would have to give them up or face strict new standards. Arrowhead members said that's not fair. Oxier added that only a partial* ban is necessary.

"Our constitution protects us from unreasonable search and seizure and prohibition," said Oxier. "I think that the eight-year-old who keeps a ball python as a pet should be allowed to do so. We don't recommend keeping venomous snakes at all."

Jim Harrison disagrees. He runs the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, KY. "As far as keeping venomous snakes goes, I believe in some kind of permit system," said Harrison.

Harrison works with snakes. He said his zoo contains the largest collection of venomous snakes in the world. It's home to nearly 2,000 venomous snakes.

"Most people when they think of snakes, think of death," said Harrison. "When I think of snakes, I think of life."

Harrison believes the animals should never be considered "pets," but adds that responsible people should be able to own a venomous snake, if they're willing to get a permit. He believes owners should: 1) have insurance, 2) own their own anti-serum, 3) live in a single family dwelling, not an apartment, and 4) should allow fish and wildlife to inspect their cages and homes.

"The ones in the media are the ones who mess up," said Harrison. "Not the ones that are doing it right. It is too easy to get the animals."

To test that theory we sent in someone who was armed with a hidden camera to a local reptile show. Vendors offered an assortment of animals. All were legal, but we wanted to see what it would take to purchase a venomous snake. It only took our subject minutes to secure at least two vendors who were willing to meet him off-site to sell him a venomous snake.

And if that's not easy enough, the world wide web is home to even more venomous snakes. A quick Google search brings up site after site.

Years ago, many stores would reportedly sell you a venomous snake without asking about your experience or state laws. Today, that fortunately does not seem to be the case. We called and emailed several online stores. Vendors we reached did question our experience and refused to sell to us when I told them we had no experience with venomous snakes, and did not have a permit.

We then turned to a few websites that allowed owners to privately post listings. I sent some emails and texted others. Several people responded. They were willing to pack and ship the snake to me. They'd merely put the snake in a box, and I would have picked it up at CVG. We were about to give several people our credit card information, but we couldn't find anyone in the Tri-State who was willing to keep our venomous snake once we ordered it. So we did the responsible thing. We ended that experiment early.

Tim Harrison is also on the front lines of this wild battleground. He is the director of Outreach for Animals, and is currently working with Governor Kasich's office on the exotic animal ban.

"I made it real simple for the Governor's office," said Tim Harrison. "Any animal that you have to shoot to kill because you're too scared to go near it, or it's too dangerous, shouldn't be in people's homes."

Harrison said the ban is a matter of public safety.

"When the Zanesville animals escaped. What happened?" asked Tim Harrison. "Some escaped and some were released. Police officers showed up. Nobody else showed up. Nobody else will take care of these things except for law enforcement so it's a public safety issue."

"Everybody thinks that Zanesville is a tragedy," said Daniel. "The ban is going to be a tragedy. If the tiger is in the wild, they're going to really go extinct. I don't know about you, but I'd like to see my great grandkids see a wild tiger. Something other than laying in a zoo miserable."

"That's why there's 3,400 tigers permitted in people's homes just in the state of Texas," said Tim Harrison. "There's 1,400 left in India. Is that sick? And we have over a 1000 or so just in the state of Ohio."

"In my experience, government doesn't stop," said Oxier. "They'll start with a ban on boas and pythons and move on there from there. I don't know what they might try to ban next, but I certainly don't want to lose my rights to keep a pet reptile that's an appropriate pet."

It's a grizzly fight, but in the end, all involved told us that it comes down to safety.

"Be aware that any animal can hurt you," said Jim Harrison. "Teach your kids that just because a dog is wagging it's tail, does not necessarily mean it's friendly."

As far as the law, there are a couple of proposals on the table right now. Most would ban the sale of exotic animals starting in 2014. Current owners would be allowed to keep them as pets if and only if they meet strict new rules, such as making them become a "private shelter" and being forced to meet new care and cage requirements. In one of the proposals, owners who don't meet the new requirements would have their animals taken away by the state.

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