TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — A county judge ordered state officials on Monday to return six tigers, a bear and three other big cats to a roadside sanctuary where they lived when they were seized nearly two years ago amid a crackdown on keeping exotic creatures.
The ruling said the Ohio Department of Agriculture unfairly denied a permit to the sanctuary's owner who first began taking in abused and unwanted animals during mid-1970s.
The state will appeal the ruling and attempt to stop the animals from being returned until the appeal plays out in court, said Mark Bruce, a department spokesman.
Kenny Hetrick and his supporters have been fighting for custody of the animals since the state took them in January 2015 after saying he ignored warnings about needing a permit and that his cages weren't secure enough to stop an escape.
The state hauled away the animals and eventually shipped them to sanctuaries out of state — where they're still housed — under a new law that came about after a man in eastern Ohio released dozens of his exotic animals before killing himself in 2011.
Hetrick, who lives just south of Toledo, argued he was treated differently than other owners who got extra time to complete their applications and get permits without losing their exotic animals.
The agriculture department said Hetrick's situation was different and that he didn't submit a completed permit application until months after the deadline.
Wood County Judge Reeve Kelsey agreed with Hetrick, ruling Monday that the state treated Hetrick with "an evil eye and an unequal hand."
The judge told the state to issue Hetrick a permit for this year and allow him to reapply for a renewed permit for 2017.
The department of agriculture, which has oversight of exotic animals, said its director has the discretion to deny permits and court decisions have backed up his authority.
The state said in October that 162 animals have been seized or voluntarily surrendered to the agriculture department and temporarily housed in its holding facility just outside of Columbus since permits were first required in 2014.
Hetrick, who doesn't have formal training with wild animals, said his collection grew when others dropped off unwanted pets.
He became an animal educator, inviting scout troops and families to see the tigers, bears and leopards he housed in a maze of steel cages next to his home.