When Margaret-Gail Ruhl’s children moved out of the house, the single mom got lonely.
Cats and dogs provided some companionship, but not enough.
So Ruhl bought a Japanese snow monkey from a dealer. Seventeen years later, she still has Barbara, a 28-pound, hairy primate who lives in a cage outside her Boston Township home.
“She thinks I’m her mom,” said Ruhl, 67, as she knelt near the cage and Barbara grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry if that’s offensive to some people. But look at how some people feel about their dogs.”
Ruhl is one of 153 owners — not counting accredited zoos and wildlife sanctuaries — who have registered about 460 animals with the Ohio Department of Agriculture under the new Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act. The Beacon Journal obtained a statewide database listing every owner and animal through a public records request.
Monkeys and big cats are the most popular exotic animals. There are 181 primates. All kinds of primates. Marmosets. Baboons. Lemurs. Chimpanzees. White-faced Capuchins. Black-capped Capuchins.
As for the felines, there are 151, including Siberian tigers, African lions, servals, bobcats and cougars.
There also are plenty of bears, alligators, crocodiles and even two spotted hyenas owned by private citizens, businesses and research groups. In the five-county Akron area, there are 64 animals registered, including 13 tigers and three lions.
The registrations are required under a state law that went into effect in the fall and shines a light on the previously unregulated issue of exotic animal and snake ownership.
The law followed outcry in October 2011 when authorities shot to death nearly 50 tigers, lions, bears, wolves and a baboon after their owner let them loose near Zanesville and then killed himself. The incident garnered national attention and exposed the fact Ohio had no oversight regarding owning exotic animals or dangerous snakes.
The Humane Society of the United States said in the March 2012 report “Ohio’s Fatal Attractions” that Ohio was “one of fewer than 10 states with virtually no regulation of private ownership of dangerous wild animals.”
The new law regulates everything from elephants to alligators. It requires private owners to implant a microchip in the animals, have liability insurance and, beginning in 2014, apply for an annual permit, which costs anywhere from $150 to $3,000. (Sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America, are exempt from having to get a permit.)
The state also is working on rules overseeing the living conditions of the animals.
Most in rural areas
Most of the animals live in rural areas. That’s not surprising given that many cities and villages bar exotic pets.
Outside of accredited zoos, Cyndi Huntsman of Perry Township in Stark County owns the most exotic animals in the state. Huntsman, who runs the Stump Hill Farm, has 34, including eight Bengal tigers and two Siberian tigers. (She also oversees the Massillon Tigers football mascot, Obie.)
Huntsman helped lead a lawsuit by animal owners against the regulations. A federal judge, though, has upheld the state law.
Ellen Whitehouse of Berlin Township in Mahoning County owns the second largest number of animals, with 28 lions, tigers and black bears. She and her husband run Noah’s Lost Ark, a sanctuary for abused and unwanted exotic animals.
Perhaps the most unusual animals are two spotted hyenas owned by Cyril Vierstra of Vinton Township in Vinton County. Vierstra also owns tigers, a ring-tailed lemur, a bobcat and a spider monkey.
Animal owners aren’t happy with the law, said Ruhl, who owns a pony, three cats and chickens, in addition to Barbara the snow monkey. She was so upset, she wrote on her state application she would move out of Ohio before giving up her pet.
“Other than her, I’m all alone,” Ruhl said.
She once had two snow monkeys, but the male started attacking her. Ruhl eventually shot the monkey with a rifle, she said through tears.
“The problem here is the law is made up by people who don’t want people to have any animals,” she said, although she acknowledged some restrictions are needed.
Many of the people who own exotic animals shun publicity. Many declined to comment or even respond when contacted by the Beacon Journal.
One owner, who didn’t want to participate in this story, said exotic animal owners can be quirky and like their privacy. He also suspects there are at least twice as many animals in Ohio than are registered.
“We feel there are likely dangerous wild-animal owners that did not register,” state agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said. “Owners had a choice to comply with the new regulations, and we know it is unlikely that everyone chose to comply.”
Portage County Sheriff David Doak said he knows a couple of wild-animal owners in the county, including a woman with two tigers and a lion. He said he has been to her house and they seem well cared for and appropriately caged.
That woman did not respond to a request for an interview.
The bigger concern, Doak said, is dealing with animals outside their home environment.
This summer, rural Portage County might have been a dumping ground for a panther, the sheriff said. His department received a half dozen reliable reports of a black cat on the loose in the Shalersville and Freedom township areas and spent several evenings looking for it.
Deputies do not receive special training in handling wild animals.
“Had we seen the panther roaming, we’d have put it down,” Doak said. “Then we become the bad guys, but I’m not going to take a chance with it mauling someone.”
The sheriff found a former law enforcement officer in Dayton who tracks and traps wild animals and called him to come look for the panther, but to no avail. The animal was last reported by a bow hunter in Geauga County in September.
“Even if you were able to trap one of these animals, then you have to figure out what to do with it,” Doak said.
Stark farm could close
Not all exotic animal owners shun publicity.
Huntsman, owner of Stump Hill Farm near Massillon, estimates between 20,000 and 30,000 people see her animals every year. The farm is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and USDA-accredited rescue habitat that does education programs, hosts school field trips, attends festivals and has appeared on numerous daytime and nighttime talk shows and news programs.
The new law, she said, forbids her from exhibiting her animals because she is not a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or Zoological Association of America (ZAA.)
But Michael Rodgers, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said owners can exhibit their animals as long as the animals don’t come in “direct contact” with the public. Direct contact would include activities such as petting, he said.
Huntsman said she has philosophical as well as financial issues with the two accrediting organizations, calling them “country clubs for rich zoos” that require members to spend a certain amount on capital improvements each year, then base dues on capital improvement expenditures.
“It’s a rip-off,” she said.
Her lawsuit, which failed at the state level, is being appealed to a higher court. Inevitably, if she loses, the farm will close, she said.
“We will have a heck of a time trying to place” the 34 exotic animals who live on the farm, she said. “The state will probably take them and euthanize them.”
Huntsman started the farm 30 years ago. At the time, she volunteered for a state-licensed wildlife center.
“More and more people were getting exotic animals as pets, and most of them were very well cared for, but to some people, like everything, they were disposable. When people didn’t want to care for them anymore, the wildlife center would take them,” she said.
But the center’s state license prohibited it from accepting animals that were not native to Ohio, so Huntsman took in the animals that were turned away.
A serious flaw in Ohio’s new regulation, Huntsman said, is that it doesn’t exempt old or sick animals from being microchipped. Of the more than 30 animals she has that fall under the microchip provision, she said 10 are too old to sedate.
“Anesthesia could kill them because of their age,” she said.
There are also financial considerations, no small matter for a nonprofit. She estimates it would cost $500 to purchase the 30-plus microchips, then $500 per animal for a vet to anesthetize them and insert the chips.
“They also came up with cage sizes that are way out of left field,” she said. “For example, for a wolf, the cage size [Ohio requires] is like 10 times more than what the USDA requires.”
Huntsman testified before state Senate and House committees debating the law last spring, but said her concerns “fell on deaf ears.”
Not all of Ohio’s exotic animals are kept as pets or exhibited to the public.
Claudia Thompson, associate professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, registered three capuchin monkeys — named Alex, Gizmo and Jake. All three were born at the college and are part of an education and noninvasive research program that has been in Wooster for three decades.
“I’ve had hundreds of students in the last 30 years learn so much about their complexity and benefit from their interactions,” Thompson said.
The monkeys are studied for their problem-solving, intelligence, cooperation, empathy and imitation skills. They live together in a room on school property where they have access to windows, climbing structures and enrichment activities. Monkeys in the program eventually are retired to natural wildlife preserves and sanctuaries, she said.
Thompson said the registration law was put into effect “without adequate information.” She’s disappointed the law calls the animals “dangerous.”
“I regret that the law has inflamed people’s concerns as though the animals are what we need to fear, when in fact it was the human’s behavior that was reckless and dangerous,” she said, referring to the Zanesville incident. “Those animals did nothing wrong.”
Still, she said, she’s in favor of a system that “limits the ability to procure and have wild animals — for the animal’s sake.”
The ramifications of the law are, as yet, unclear, she said. For instance, she doesn’t know if her animals are exempt from the portion of the law requiring microchips.
“I just hope people will keep their heads as they go about” implementing the law, she said.
Heather Bing, spokeswoman for Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), said the university owns two marmosets. Because the form requires the name of a contact individual, they were registered under the name of Walter Horton, NEOMED vice president of research.
From time to time, the university uses animals in various research efforts.
Currently, the marmosets in residence are being researched by a skeletal biologist who is interested in their movement patterns, such as how they walk. Because prehistoric marmosets lived underground and modern ones live in trees, the biologist is trying to understand how they have adapted.
The law does affect institutions differently than private individuals, Bing said. For instance, private owners also are required to get a permit for their animals. As an institution, NEOMED only needs to register them.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.