Ann Sanner

COLUMBUS: Ohio officials are preparing to impose new rules on owners of exotic animals — along with hiring more field staff and writing new caretaking standards — without knowing exactly how many lions, leopards, bears and other creatures are living in the state.

That’s because until the governor signs the regulations into law, Ohio’s restrictions on exotic pets are among the nation’s weakest.

Efforts to strengthen the law took on urgency after owner Terry Thompson released 50 animals, including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers, from his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville in October, then committed suicide.

The state Legislature last week cleared a bill that would ban people from buying dangerous exotic animals, such as cheetahs and crocodiles, once the measure takes effect.

Current owners could keep their creatures by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014. They would have to pass a background check, pay permit fees, obtain liability insurance and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and adhere to other standards.

Within 60 days after the bill’s effective date, owners would have to microchip their dangerous wildlife and register them. They would have to tell the state where the animals are, how many they have, what the creatures look like and who their veterinarian is, among other details.

State officials hope the registration process will give them a better handle on Ohio’s exotic animal population.

“We’re really kind of dealing with the unknown here,” said Dr. Tony Forshey, the state’s veterinarian.

Rough estimates by the department put the number of dangerous animals in the state, including venomous snakes, close to 640. Officials acknowledge that figure is just a guess, based on information from owners who already are licensed with state or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with reports from law enforcement.

The state’s Agriculture Department hopes to get the word out to owners about registering their animals through organizations such as the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, zoo associations and veterinarians.

Officials are also preparing for what to do if the owners can’t meet the state’s new regulations, or if they want to get rid of the animals.

State agencies, the USDA and wildlife experts from as far away as California will meet next month to put together a list of potential animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities for unwanted or uncared for animals, Forshey said.

Permits for bears, tigers and other dangerous animals would begin at $250 and could be more than $1,000, depending on the number of animals.

The Legislature set aside $500,000 to start the program.