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Debbie Phillips

Aftermath of exotic escape: Rep. Phillips to push legislation limiting private owners in Ohio

With officials statewide making a push for exotic-animal regulations following Tuesday’s Zanesville fiasco, Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-92nd, will propose legislation today that would ban new private ownership of exotic animals in Ohio.

If the law passes, private individuals would not be able to own exotic animals unless affiliated with an accredited zoo, Phillips said.

Existing owners would be grandfathered in but would be required to register the animals with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and to implant the animals with microchips so they can be tracked in case of an escape.

“These are dangerous animals,” Phillips said. “Not everyone is properly equipped and trained to care for them.”

Jim Galvin, founder of Midwest Big Cat Care, agrees additional regulations are necessary, but said a statewide reactive measures could go too far.

“Good owners know what they’re doing and are safe,” he said. “But we need to regulate the hell out of these bad owners.”

The preserve, located near New Marshfield in Athens County, has two tigers that are locked behind three gates at all times.

Though Galvin owns the cats publicly, there are about 1,000 big cats that are privately owned in Ohio, he estimated, who would fight any legislation attempting to restrict their cats.  

“You think horse, dog and cat owners have passion,” he said. “When it comes to big cat owners, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Although the statewide ban is well intentioned, restrictions that come on the coattails of Tuesday’s escape might lack sufficient consideration, he said.

The Ohio Division of Natural Resources and other government agencies have been working to create solid regulations for exotic-animal owners and are about six weeks away from finalizing them, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz in a news conference yesterday morning.

In response to the escape, Gov. John Kasich assembled a group of 10 organizations to meet — but not for the first time — and try to move closer to finalizing exotic- and Ohio native wild-animal ownership regulations.

Though Zanesville falls outside her district, Phillips said exotic-animal safety is important statewide, adding that Ohio is one of a few states with little regulation of the ownership of exotic animals.

There are 67 active Ohio exotic-animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Though county sheriffs statewide back how the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office handled the escape, law enforcement is not usually equipped to handle an exotic-animal escape of that magnitude, Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly said.

Involving those types of animals and proper regulation at the state level should prevent it from ever occurring, he added.

Though it’s appropriate for legislators to be creating new regulations and activists to be outraged by the animals’ deaths, no one was doing anything before the tragedy occurred, Kelly said.

“It’s a bit late, isn’t it?” Kelly said. “Something should have been done a long time ago.”

Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Ohio Senator Troy Balderson, R-20th, said the senator is reserving judgment on additional regulations until recommendations from animal experts and governmental agencies are published.

“It’s clear we need to look very intently at our current laws and regulations,” he said. “But we want to make sure we craft something safe for the public but fair for exotic-animal owners.”

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