A study group on Monday proposed that Ohio ban new ownership of venomous snakes, monkeys, tigers and other dangerous animals with only limited exceptions and give state officials' the authority to take from private property any wildlife that's being kept illegally.
The group has held expedited meetings in private since last month, when police were forced to kill 48 wild animals _ including endangered Bengal tigers _ after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.
A summary of the group's input and state agencies' recommendations for new regulations was obtained Monday by The Associated Press after the panel's final meeting.
The working group's recommendations for updating Ohio's laws are due to the governor by Nov. 30. Its finalized report will be sent next week.
The group's framework for legislation suggests the ban start on Jan. 1, 2014. Owners would have to meet new temporary safety standards before then and also register their animals with the state within 60 days of the law's effective date. Zoo, circuses and research facilities would be exempt. Animal sanctuaries with restricted animals would have to be licensed and regulated by the state.
The panel's recommendations are only suggestions to state lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich, a first-term Republican who convened the group in April to get their input. The members' ideas and the recommendations from the Ohio Department of National Resources and state Department of Agriculture would have to be drafted into legislation, heard before committees and passed by the legislature before becoming law.
The office of state Sen. Troy Balderson, a Zanesville native, has said he would pursue legislation as soon as the working group made its recommendations.
Under the group's recommendations, owners would face new criminal and civil penalties for keeping dangerous wildlife against state rules. And those who improperly release dangerous animals would also be punished. Details of any fines or jail time weren't included in Monday's report.
The group recommended that officials be given new authority to inspect and enforce the law on private property where dangerous animals are housed. In addition, the state would also set up a way for owners to voluntarily surrender the creatures.
Selling wild animals wouldn't be restricted prior to the date of the ban, though the summary hints that a tougher crackdown on the sale could soon follow.
"The hope is that by reducing impediments to sale, we will reduce the number of animals that are still in Ohio on the date of the possession ban, which will require confiscation and forfeiture," according to the summary of the group's framework.
Ultimately, the ability to buy, sell, and trade these animals will no longer be permitted in Ohio, said Laura Jones, a spokeswoman for the state's natural resources department. A final decision on how to move forward is still being worked out, she said.
The working group includes 10 organizations with a stake in the issue, among them the state's Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, the Ohio Farm Bureau and the Zoological Association of America.
The head of the Humane Society of the United States said his organization was encouraged by the group's recommendations and urged state lawmakers to advance the plan before the end of the year.
"It's now time for the legislature to act, and to do something that is proportional to the nature of this severe problem in Ohio," said Wayne Pacelle, the group's president and CEO, said in a statement.
Polly Britton, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, said she was disappointed facilities licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn't be exempt from the regulations. These licensees include exhibitors, breeders and dealers, she said.
"I'd be surprised if he (Kasich) wants to shut down small businesses, but that's what's going to happen," Britton said.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen the regulations took on new urgency after farm owner Terry Thompson opened his cages and let his animals out on Oct. 18.
Police officers killed dozens of the animals, but three leopards, two monkeys and a young grizzly bear survived. They have been quarantined at the Columbus zoo, where they continue to be under observation, said Erica Pitchford, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.
Zoo and state officials are trying to develop the animals' medical history and determine whether they are healthy enough to be tested for diseases, Pitchford said.
The animals must be anesthetized to have blood drawn. And there's a concern that if they put them to sleep before they're strong enough, they might not survive.
The state's Department of Agriculture ordered the animals be kept under quarantine at a zoo after Thompson's widow had sought to reclaim them. There's no expiration date on the quarantine, and there's not a timeline for the testing to occur, Pitchford said.
"Until everyone feels confident about how to go about putting those animals to sleep, we are going to continue to observe them and try to get them as healthy as possible," Pitchford said.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources: http://bit.ly/tH1nwH