Exotic animal owners in Ohio appeal restrictions

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Some owners of exotic animals say a new Ohio law is onerous and infringes on their constitutional rights, and they’ve asked a federal appeals court to strike it down.

The private owners argue in a brief filed Friday that the law violates the First and Fifth Amendments, by limiting their freedom of association and effectively taking their property by requiring them to implant microchips in their animals at their own expense before being registered with the state.

They argue the law includes impossible hurdles that leave owners who want to operate for-profit businesses only one option: joining a zoological group that private owners are “loathe to associate with,” a lawyer for the owners wrote in the brief.

Attorney Robert Owens called Ohio permitting requirements “a sham” — imposing compliance costs so exorbitantly high they exceed the value of the animals involved and threatening to financially wipe out those who seek permits.

“As a result, the Act provides a textbook Hobson’s choice. There is no actual choice, only an illusory one,” Owens wrote. “Unless they join (one of two national zoological associations), Appellants will have to dispose of their property and close their businesses.”

The appeal comes after a federal judge in Columbus sided with the state last year in upholding the law.

Ohio strengthened its regulation of exotic animal ownership after a Zanesville man released dozens of his animals in 2011 from his eastern Ohio farm before committing suicide. Authorities killed most of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public’s safety.

The new law took effect in September, although some provisions have yet to kick in. Those include a permit process that goes into place in October.

Under that process, owners who want to keep their animals must obtain new state-issued permits by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show inspectors they can properly contain the animals and care for them. The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by the two national zoo groups.

Owens says in the brief filed with the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati that the only way for his clients to qualify for an exemption under the law is for them to join either the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Zoological Association of America — groups he says are at odds with his clients.

“The AZA and ZAA advocate against private ownership in the form of aggressive political lobbying and contributions of time and money to political candidates who support their political agenda,” Owens wrote.

In upholding the law last year, U.S. District Court Judge George Smith said the court recognizes some businesses may be negatively affected by it and some owners may not be able to keep their beloved animals, but the plaintiffs failed to prove it violates their constitutional rights. Smith said the case came down to the public interest and protecting the public from the potential dangers of exotic animals that get loose.

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