Hanna berates Ohio legislators on exotic pet laws

ANN SANNER Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna criticized Ohio lawmakers Thursday for not yet passing a bill to regulate exotic animals, months after authorities shot nearly dozens of lions, tigers, bears and other wild creatures let loose by their suicidal owner.

A Republican state senator from Zanesville, the eastern Ohio city where the animals were shot, had planned to introduce a bill this week but then said it was not ready. There is no new timetable for the measure.

"What's it going to take, everyone, to pass a bill? Someone else getting killed?" Hanna said during his remarks to an Ohio newspaper trade group.

Hanna, a former Columbus Zoo director who has given animal demonstrations on national television for decades, said he can't believe legislation hasn't progressed.

"In fact, I'm actually in a state of shock right now because, folks, you're not dealing with some little issue of animals here. You're dealing with bombs," Hanna told members of the Ohio Newspaper Association at their convention in Columbus.

Hanna said he has no power over the Ohio Legislature and isn't running for office. But he said he has seen a tiger finish off a 2,000-pound water buffalo in less than 10 seconds and lions take down even larger animals in less than 30 seconds.

"You probably don't want to witness it," he said.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. Efforts to strengthen the state's law took on new urgency in October when authorities were forced to hunt down and kill 48 wild animals -- including endangered Bengal tigers -- after their owner freed them from his Zanesville farm and then committed suicide.

In August 2010, a bear attacked and killed a caretaker during a feeding at the home of a man who also kept wolves and tigers on property near Cleveland.

State Sen. Troy Balderson, of Zanesville, had sent a letter last Friday to state lawmakers, asking them to sign on to his bill.

He included some details about future regulations in his letter. For instance, the measure would immediately ban people from acquiring additional exotic animals. Zoo, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities would be exempt.

Owners of lions, tigers and other large animals, such as elephants and crocodiles, would be banned in 2014 from keeping the creatures unless they applied to be a "private shelter" and met new caging requirements and care standards.

But on Tuesday, Balderson said the bill needed more work.

"Since the day of the tragic events in Zanesville, I have been consistent in saying that legislating on a knee-jerk reaction is unwise," Balderson said in a statement. "We are not as far along in the drafting process as we had originally intended to be at this time."

Balderson's proposal is less strict than a framework suggested last year by a state study committee and state agencies.

The group had recommended a more stringent ban on the casual ownership of exotic animals. Those who still owned restricted wildlife -- such as bears, monkeys and others -- in 2014 without proper licenses or exemptions would have the animals taken away by state or local officials.

Hanna said that on his travels around the world, he has frequently been asked whether the laws have been changed in Ohio as a result of the Zanesville hunt.

"This is an international issue," he said. "The world is waiting for what the law will be."