The future of a wild animal refuge in Stony Ridge is in question as a new state law that enacts a wide-ranging permit and regulation program for such animals takes effect.
Ken Hetrick, owner of Tiger Ridge Exotics, said the cost of permits and other related expenses in the law may force him to close the refuge he’s operated for more than 30 years as a non-commercial venture that relies on donations to help meet costs.
The Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act bans unpermitted ownership of certain animals and reptiles by Jan. 1, 2014. The restricted list covers lions, tigers and other “large cats”, bears, elephants, certain monkeys, rhinos, alligators, crocodiles, anacondas and pythons longer than 12 feet, certain vipers and venomous snakes.
Affected owners were required to register their animals with the Ohio Department of Agriculture by Nov. 2, 2012 and they must obtain permits between Oct. 1 of this year and Jan. 1.
“Wildlife shelter” permits cost $250 for one to three animals and up to $1,000 for 11 to 15 animals. There is a $125 fee for each animal over the 15 limit. In addition, owners must obtain liability insurance or a surety bond of $200,000 to $1 million depending on the number of animals. The law also mandates separate permits for owners intending to breed wild animals solely for species survival programs and not planning to acquire new animals and rescue facilities as well as restricted snakes.
Those costs and other expenses stemming from the new regulations have Hetrick wondering if his refuge can remain open. Currently, it is home to seven tigers, three lions, a black leopard, a grizzly bear, timber wolves, and a liger.
He’s received a quote of $84,000 from one contractor for changing the chain-link fencing to the fence gauge stipulated in the new law. And he’s leery of having his animals micro-chipped – another requirement in the law unless exempted.
“I have all of my animals registered and started with my grizzly bear for the micro-chip,” he said. “Two days later she’s laying out there dead. Some are so old they can’t take the tranquilizing drug to put the chip in. One lion is 25 years old, another is 24 years old, and the liger has cancer. Every animal I have here has been rescued from someone who didn’t want them.”
In all the years he’s housed animals at the refuge on Fremont Pike, no animal has escaped and no visitor has been hurt, Hetrick says with pride. He was bitten by one of his grizzly bears several years ago when he tried to pull a deer carcass from the front of the bear den.
The facility has permits from and is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
Legislators began work on the law after an owner near Zanesville, O. released his collection of wild animals shortly before committing suicide in October 2011. Authorities killed nearly 50 of the animals, including bears, tiger, and lions, to protect area residents.
The law is being challenged by some owners as well as the Ohio Association of Animal Owners. Late last year the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the state and the OAAO filed an appeal in May in the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
The state spent about $3 million to construct a wild animal holding facility in Reynoldsburg, O.
“When they start collecting animals from people like me and others they’re going to fill that place up quick,” Hetrick said. “They have no idea how expensive it will be to run that facility.”
However, others say the law has been needed.
“There should never again be a crisis like the one in Zanesville, and powerful wild animals should never be kept in someone’s backyard or basement as pets,” said Karen Minton, Ohio director of the Humane Society of the U.S. after the court decision.
One irony isn’t lost on Hetrick. A provision of the law requires each county to form a Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team that includes representatives from law enforcement, emergency management agencies, public health care, news media, elected office holders, veterinarians, and a wild animal owner or zoo official.
He’s been asked to be a member of the Wood County response team.