By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Animal welfare groups pleaded on Thursday for tighter restrictions or a ban on private ownership of exotic animals after a panic in Ohio this week when scores of dangerous beasts were set loose.
Police hunted down and killed dozens of lions, tigers, bears, and primates set loose from a private menagerie on Tuesday by owner Terry Thompson, 62, who then killed himself.
"This latest incident simply puts an exclamation point on our call to stop the private ownership of dangerous, wild animals as pets or roadside attractions," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a conference call.
"These animals do not belong in people's backyards or bedrooms or basements," Pacelle said.
Seven states, including Ohio, have no ban on owning exotic animals. The others are Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, West Virginia, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Federal law regulates the interstate transport of big cats, but states regulate their ownership. A similar federal law on the transport of primates failed to pass Congress. A U.S. government agency is drafting a proposal on the transport of some snakes.
The animals involved in the Ohio incident might have been taken away earlier if Ohio authorities had enforced a lapsed rule put in place in January by former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. The rule banned private breeding or purchase of exotic animals and stripped ownership rights from someone such as Thompson convicted of animal cruelty, Pacelle said.
The rule was allowed to expire after 90 days by Republican Governor John Kasich amid doubts whether the state could restrict ownership of any non-native wild animals.
Pacelle said the emergency in Zanesville, Ohio, in which schools were closed and residents told to remain inside, showed the necessity for the emergency rule or similar legislation.
The rule was correct in principle but it was "sloppy" and not enforceable, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said on Thursday. The rule made no provision for what to do with any seized animals.
Kasich earlier set up a task force on the issue which will make recommendations in about a month, his spokesman said.
"This is much bigger than Ohio," Pacelle said. "I would hazard to guess that we're talking about tens of thousands of dangerous exotic animals in our communities."
He and other animal welfare experts said Ohio was one of the centers for the lucrative U.S. trade in exotic animals that is largely an American phenomenon. There are thousands of captive tigers in Texas alone, more than live in the wild.
Lobbying by groups espousing private ownership, and by the pet trade that fears restrictions will be placed on purchases of animals like geckos, has often succeeded in blocking efforts to pass such laws, Pacelle said.
The Ohio Association of Animal Owners Inc said on its web site that supporters should be prepared to block legislation as they have for the past 20 years. A message left with the group was not returned.
Joe Maynard, a board member of the Zoological Association of America, a group that accredits private breeders and some government-operated zoos, said people like Thompson should be barred from owning exotic animals because he violated animal cruelty laws.
"We recognize regulations are needed. I don't think a ban is necessary," Maynard said. "A knee-jerk response to this incident may hurt everyone, not just us."
(Additional reporting by Lily Kuo in Washington and Jim Leckrone in Columbus; Editing by Greg McCune)