Exotic animals killed in Ohio puts spotlight on Michigan bill

Oct 20, 2011

The tragedy that unfolded for the exotic animals near Zanesville, Ohio on Tuesday night and Wednesday highlighted the lack of regulation in Ohio for a particular type of animal compound.

Terry Thompson kept bears, tigers, lions, monkeys, and other animals on his property.

He reportedly did not display them to the public for compensation, and was not required to carry a permit from the USDA. And an Ohio state law regulating exotic animals had expired.

Greg Bishop and Timothy Williams reported on the laws regulating exotic animals in a story for the New York Times:

Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the United States Department of Agriculture, said that under the federal Animal Welfare Act, the agency monitors exotic animal owners only if they exhibit the animals to the public for compensation.

“The rub in Ohio is that U.S.D.A. does not regulate that sanctuary because Mr. Thompson does not exhibit his animals to the public for compensation,” Mr. Sacks said.

Will Travers, the chief executive of Born Free USA, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports wild animals and opposes the exotic pet trade, said that Ohio is one of only eight states that do not regulate exotic animals. It did briefly after a bear mauling, but Gov. John Kasich allowed the ban to expire.

“Ohio has a particularly bad record when it comes to exotics,” Mr. Travers said.

Michigan is one eight states that has partial ban on private ownership of exotic animals, according to Born Free USA.

The state does not allow private ownership of an animal that can "cause serious physical harm" - animals such as tigers, lions, bears and wolves (or wolf-hybrids).

Act 466 of the Animal Industry Act states:

Any species having the potential to spread serious diseases or parasites, to cause serious physical harm, or to otherwise endanger native wildlife, human life, livestock, domestic animals, or property, as determined by the director, shall not be imported into this state.

The state’s Large Carnivore Act was passed in 2000, complementing the restrictions of the Animal Industry Act (the act was triggered after a young girl was killed by a wolf-hybrid).

Steve Halstead is the state veterinarian for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. He said, in Michigan, zoos are typically the only entities that can keep exotic animals under these laws.

Halstead said, he doesn’t know for sure (the act is enforced at the local level), but there are likely individuals in the state who still keep animals such as large cats on their private land.

Owners were grandfathered in when the Large Carnivore Act was passed eleven years ago. Halstead said some of these animals might still be alive. The owners are not allowed to replace the animals once they die.

Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan worries the laws that regulate dangerous exotic animals in the state could be watered down by a bill in the Michigan Senate.

The Detroit Free Press reports that, coincidentally, Kagan was arguing against the bill the day the Ohio tragedy unfolded:

Michigan law currently requires new facilities to meet stringent standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Kagan said. Senate Bill 210 would allow accreditation by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which calls itself an advocacy group for privately operated facilities.

"That process and accreditation is far different ... it's not as rigorous," Kagan said. "If people start throwing the word 'accreditation' around loosely, it becomes a problem."

The Oakland County Daily Tribune wrote a piece about Kagan's effort to stop the bill, and about the bill's sponsor, State Senator Joe Hune (R-Hamburg Township).

In the article, Carrie Cramer, director of the DeYoung Family Zoo in the Upper Peninsula, said that AZA zoos oppose the measure because they see the ZAA as competition.

From the article:

State Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, sponsored SB 210 to exempt facilities accredited by the ZAA in addition to the AZA from the Large Carnivore Act.

Hune said in a statement that the bill will benefit other Michigan zoos that are "dedicated to animal conservation and provide our children with an opportunity to see wild animals in a safe and educational setting."

MDARD State Veterinarian Steve Halstead said in the version of the bill he last saw, accreditation by the ZAA would have to be backed up by a federal permit from the USDA. ZAA accreditation alone wouldn’t be enough.

If the bill passed with the language he last saw, Halstead said it would be possible for an individual to own dangerous exotic animals in Michigan, and not have them publically displayed. To do this, they would need the required accreditation and a USDA “Class A” permit (a permit often given to breeders).