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Big cats leaving Ohio for new home

Big cats leaving Ohio for new home

By Alan Johnson

big-cat-rescue-art-gnugil2t-1big-cat-rescue-b-jpgThe Columbus DispatchFriday March 23, 2012 7:48 AM

Nikita and Tasha are leaving Ohio because of a proposed state law regulating ownership of exotic animals.

Nikita, a 7-year-old white Bengal tiger, and Tasha, an 11-year-old cougar, are moving to the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn., next week. Their owner, an undisclosed Ohio woman, made a “tearful call” to the sanctuary asking them to take her animals because she feared the “future looks uncertain” for them.

The two cats could be the first of a wave of exotic animals leaving Ohio. However, some authorities are worried that future departures won’t be as clean. If unlicensed animal owners refuse to get rid of them by 2014, local humane societies have the job to enforce the law – with the fate of the exotic animals unknown. Local zoo officials already have made it clear they cannot take any.

When an exotic-animals law took effect in Minnesota in 2005, 33 lions and tigers were removed from private homes in just one summer, said Tammy Thies, director of the nonprofit sanctuary between Duluth and Minneapolis in eastern Minnesota.

The big cats will be picked up Monday for the trip north to the sanctuary, which boasts “free-roaming, natural habitats complete with pools, perches, hammocks and a climate-controlled shelter.” The Ohio cats are expected to arrive there on Tuesday.

Thies said the owner does not wish to be identified. “We’re doing what’s best and safest for the animals,” she said.

“I’ve been talking to this person for a long time, and I have the highest respect for her. She cares about her animals and wants to choose where her animals go.”

The tiger and cougar have been well cared for but are living in 10-by-15-foot cages.

The animals’ owner is coming to grips with what many Ohioans may have to eventually deal with as state officials work on a law to ban the sale and regulate ownership of lions, tigers, bears and other exotic animals. Senate Bill 310, sponsored by Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, had its second public hearing this week.

The bill would prohibit sales of specified exotic animals beginning Jan. 1, 2014. While existing owners of exotics would be able to keep their animals, they would have to carry liability insurance, pay registration fees and implant microchips in the animals for identification.

Some private owners who object to the proposed regulations have said they will go “underground”with their animals or move out of state.

Thies said the sanctuary gets many calls from owners who find they cannot care for their animals.

“People think of them as pets, but they don’t think 20 years down the road with everything that can happen,” she said. “When we get animals, we’re not the second stop. We’re the fifth or sixth stop for these animals.”

The sanctuary, which has 113 animals and a $550,000 annual budget, all from donations, got help from the International Fund for Animal Welfare to raise $30,000 to pay for the rescue of the big Ohio cats. The facility is not open to the public.

Balderson’s proposal responds to the incident near Zanesville on Oct. 18 when law-enforcement officers were forced to kill 48 animals, including bears, lions, tigers and wolves, after their owner set them free. Terry W. Thompson, 62, committed suicide after releasing the animals he had collected for years.

In related news, a statewide survey conducted by Saperstein Associates of Columbus showed Ohioans strongly support the exotic-animals legislation, plus proposals to regulate commercial dog breeders and make cockfighting a felony. The survey was commissioned by the Humane Society of the U.S.

The Saperstein survey found that 75 percent support Balderson’s exotic-animals proposal. Eighty percent support legislation to regulate so-called puppy mills, and seventy percent approve making cockfighting a felony.

The telephone survey of 804 voters was conducted March 13-18; the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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