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Some state laws are lax on exotic pets

Cindy Huntsman, with a baby zebra at her Stump Hill Farm near Massillon, Ohio, says incidents of attacks by exotic animals kept as pets “are a very small percentage.’’ Cindy Huntsman, with a baby zebra at her Stump Hill Farm near Massillon, Ohio, says incidents of attacks by exotic animals kept as pets “are a very small percentage.’’ (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)
By Julie Carr Smyth
Associated Press / September 5, 2010

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The bear that recently killed a caretaker in a Cleveland suburb was the latest example of animal violence in a state that has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.

After a standoff between the Humane Society and agriculture interests, state officials are crafting restrictions on the ownership of dangerous wild pets. But the killer bear and others owned by former bear-wrestling entrepreneur Sam Mazzola, who had lost his federal license to exhibit exotic animals, would have been grandfathered out of them.

“It’s just a free-for-all in Ohio, and Sam Mazzola is just an example of that,’’ said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. “Tigers, wolves, bears in a suburban Lorain County community: It is a disaster waiting to happen.’’

The death in Ohio and attacks elsewhere — including the maiming of a Connecticut woman by her friend’s pet chimpanzee and a 2-year-old Florida girl squeezed to death by her family’s python — highlight the holes in the patchwork of federal, state, and local laws on keeping dangerous wild animals at home.

Mazzola had the proper state permit to keep the black bear.

He also kept wolves, tigers, and a lion, something he was free to do because Ohio and at least four other states — Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, and Montana — impose few or no restrictions on the ownership of non-native animals kept solely as pets, according to a review of state regulations by the Associated Press.

The US Department of Agriculture regulates animals exhibited to the public but not private ownership. The US Fish and Wildlife Service requires permits for native endangered and threatened species but doesn’t normally track non-native, endangered species unless they are bought and sold across state borders.

The Humane Society cut a deal this year with Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and leading farm groups that traded pulling an animal cruelty measure off the November ballot for certain animal protections, including a ban on exotic pets. Farm groups opposed the ballot measure, which would have imposed treatment and caging requirements on livestock, as threatening to Ohio’s $93 billion agricultural industry.

Under the original version of the proposed Ohio regulations, owners could have kept existing dangerous pets like Mazzola’s but not have been able to breed them or replace them when they died.

But Strickland has now ordered that the new rules allow the state to pull animals away from owners who have engaged in misconduct, such as losing their federal license, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said. The rules will not ban exotic animals from zoos, research centers, and existing athletic mascot programs, she said.

Many exotic pet owners in Ohio and elsewhere believe big animals — especially predators — are no longer safe in the wild because of habitat loss, public fear, and poaching. They view themselves as conservationists.

“Of the overall amount of people who actually have snakes as pets, who actually have chimpanzees as pets, these incidents are a very small percentage,’’ said Cindy Huntsman, whose Stump Hill Farm near Massillon houses 250 wild animals.

According to a database of publicized exotic-pet escapes and attacks since 1990 kept by the animal rights group Born Free USA, Ohio ranks fifth in the number of episodes that hurt or killed a human — 14. The leader, Florida, has had 43, followed by Texas with 19, New York with 18, and California with 16. Alabama ties Ohio with 14.

After a friend’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee mauled and blinded a Connecticut woman in 2009, state lawmakers voted to ban ownership of large primates and other potentially dangerous animals.

Since a Florida girl was suffocated by her family’s Burmese python last year, it has become illegal for individuals there to own them and six other large, exotic reptile species.

Born Free USA considers it inhumane to keep large, wild animals in captivity, said the group’s executive vice president, Adam Roberts.

Exotic pet ownership also includes the risk of infectious disease, damage to the environment when pets are set free or escape, and a growing financial burden on animal rescue groups that run sanctuaries for animals that are abandoned, Roberts said.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums recommends against exotic pet ownership in part because of the lethal diseases wild animals can carry: distemper and rabies in carnivores; herpes in monkeys; and salmonella in reptiles. Vaccines used on domestic animals often don’t work on wild ones, the group notes.

“People see wild animals and they see them as cute, as something they want to have, want to hold, want to covet,’’ Roberts said. “Then they get bigger and more dangerous and the owner is in over their head.’’

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