Ann Sanner

COLUMBUS: Dozens of exotic-animal owners lined up Tuesday before a state legislative panel to express their concerns over new permit fees, caging requirements and other proposed rules contained in a bill drawn up after a man released lions and Bengal tigers from his farm.

The measure, which seeks to regulate wildlife in the state, would ban new ownership of lions, tigers and other exotic animals, allowing current owners to keep their pets by obtaining new permits by 2014. The owners would have to pass background checks, obtain insurance, install microchips in the creatures and show they can adhere to caretaking and safety measures. Zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities would be exempt.

Animal owner Evelyn Shaw, who lives in Pataskala, just east of Columbus, told senators on Tuesday that the bill would force her and other private owners to euthanize their animals or keep them illegally. She said the fees are too expensive and insurance is too difficult to get.

“Anytime something is banned, it goes underground,” she said. “Desperate people use desperate measures. This could cause a greater public safety risk.”

Shaw, who said she has four species that would be restricted under the bill but declined to say how many animals she owns, was among many opponents in the standing-room-only hearing who wore buttons to show their opposition to the legislation. She said she legally obtained her cougar, named Niles, and has kept him at her home for 15 years.

“I know his personality, his likes and dislikes, his feeding schedule and when there is the slightest change indicating that he may not feel well,” she 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 a suicidal man released dozens of wild animals from his farm and authorities were forced to kill almost all of them, including endangered Bengal tigers.

The bill has the support of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Columbus Zoo. The head of the Humane Society of the United States has said the measure would be a vast improvement for Ohio but had concerns over certain exemptions and snake ownership rules.

The bill would let owners of constricting and venomous snakes keep their reptiles, but they must have safety plans in place in case the snakes got out or if they were bitten. Owners could still breed and acquire new snakes.

Snake owner David Sagan, who takes snakes and other reptiles into schools as part of his work at the Hocking Woods Nature Center in Nelsonville, described the proposed requirements as cumbersome and discouraging. Plus, Sagan said, constrictors are gentler than the proposed rules make them out to be.

“I, for good luck, literally kissed all my big pythons on the head before I came here,” he told the Ohio Senate committee.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first chance opponents had to speak to the legislative panel considering the bill. A committee vote has not been scheduled. And the chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee said he planned to take as much time as needed for people to be heard.