COLUMBUS, Ohio – Four owners of exotic animals in Ohio are suing the state’s agriculture department and its director over a new law regulating dangerous wildlife, contending the restrictions threaten their property rights and freedom of speech.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Columbus federal court. It comes as the owners face a Monday deadline to register their creatures with the state.
The owners claim the law forces them to join private associations and possibly give up their animals without compensation. They also contend it unlawfully requires them to perform surgical procedures on the animals.
Under the law, owners must microchip their animals before they register them, so the creatures can be identified if they get lost or escape.
The state had received 80 registrations as of Friday. Officials planned to update the number on Monday afternoon.
If owners don’t register by Monday, they could face a first-degree misdemeanor charge for a first offense, and a fifth-degree felony for any subsequent offenses.
A spokeswoman for the agriculture department declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday.
“We’re committed to protecting the public and transitioning away from casual ownership of dangerous, wild animals by enforcing these new standards on enclosures and care,” said agriculture spokeswoman Erica Pitchford Hawkins.
Ohio’s restrictions on exotic animals had been among the nation’s weakest.
State lawmakers worked with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen the law after owner Terry Thompson last fall released 50 creatures from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville before killing himself.
The owners have asked the court to block the law while a review of their lawsuit continues.
“The prohibition of sale of privately-owned animals, combined with the forced transfer of animals to certain groups, does not advance any public safety rationale, and only serves to benefit certain politically-favored groups at the expense of those who are apparently viewed by the state as ‘more like Terry Thompson,’ ” the four owners said in a court filing.
The owners suing the state have multiple breeds of exotic animals. They are: Terry Wilkins, who owns a reptile and amphibian store called Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus; Cyndi Huntsman, owner of Stump Hill Farm in Massillon; Mike Stapleton, owner of Paws & Claws Animal Sanctuary in Prospect; and Sean Trimbach, owner of Best Exotics LLC in Medway, where he breeds, raises and sells exotic animals.
In their lawsuit, the owners say they cost of implanting a microchip in the animal can exceed the animals’ value. They also contend that joining certain groups to become exempt from the law means they would have to associate and fund organizations with which they disagree.
The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.
While the law took effect last month, some aspects have yet to kick in. For instance, a permit process for owners won’t begin until next October.
Current owners who want to keep their animals must obtain the new state-issued permit by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds, and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and care for it.
One of the factors of obtaining of permit includes timely registration.
If owners are denied permits or can’t meet the new requirements, the state can seize the animals.