TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Returning six tigers and five other exotic animals to the sanctuary where they were seized near Toledo would threaten the creatures' health and the safety of people nearby, the state argued Thursday as it responded to a judge's order.
The state removed the animals Wednesday after denying the owner a permit to keep them and raising concerns that the cages and fencing at the property could allow some of them to escape. Hours later, a county judge ordered the state to return all 11 — the tigers, a bear, a lion, a cougar, a black leopard and a liger — "commensurate with safety to the animals."
The state argues that the animals would have to be put under anesthesia twice more and that doing so would pose unacceptable risks to their health and safety. The animals also need to be evaluated for possible medical problems after being held in "inhumane conditions" with wet beds and no access to drinking water, the state veterinarian said in an affidavit.
"The animals cannot safely be returned ... without posing an unreasonable danger to the health of the animals, the safety of the individuals transporting the animals, and the persons living in the vicinity," the state said in its court filing Thursday.
A message seeking comment was left with the owner's attorney on Thursday.
Inspectors who visited the animal sanctuary in November found that the tigers could stand on top of their housing and get near the top of their cages, according to a letter sent two weeks ago from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to site's owner.
"This makes it alarmingly easy for the animals to escape should they become properly motivated," the department said.
Inspectors also noted there were unsecured padlocks and chains on the cages, fencing that could be easily separated by the animals and not enough fencing around an enclosure holding a tiger and black leopard.
The animals, which were up and moving around Thursday after being tranquilized and transported a day earlier, were being housed in a high security building just outside Columbus. The facility was designed specifically to temporarily house creatures confiscated under a new Ohio law that requires owners to register exotic animals.
The law came about after a suicidal eastern Ohio man released dozens of bears, mountain lions and tigers from his farm in 2011 near Zanesville. Authorities killed 48 of the animals out of fear for the public's safety.
Part of the law also required exotic animal owners to have or apply for a permit by the beginning of 2014.
Kenny Hetrick, who has operated the animal sanctuary near Toledo for more than 30 years, didn't apply for a permit until October — nine months after the deadline — when he received a notice from the state saying he needed to voluntarily surrender the animals because he had failed to get the necessary permits, Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.
The state had tried to notify him about the permit earlier but received no response, Hawkins said.
Hetrick said Wednesday that he was angry the animals were seized. "I should have had a hearing, and I never got one," he told The Blade newspaper in Toledo.
Hetrick told the state he had made a number of changes at his facility when he submitted a permit application and asked inspectors to visit the site, Hawkins said.
But according to the letter sent to Hetrick, they found many problems with the enclosures and a handful of issues related to animal care. Some of the meat being fed to the animals appeared to be spoiled and the water was not clean, the letter said.
The state notified Hetrick in the letter on Jan. 13 that it was denying his permit and that he had 30 days to appeal. Hawkins said the state was within its rights to seize the animals as long as it maintains them until the appeals process is completed.
"We didn't feel comfortable in leaving those animals there any longer than we needed to," she said.