Hanna berates Ohio legislators on exotic pet laws

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By ANN SANNER, Associated Press

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 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.

Hanna again defended the sheriff's decision to kill the animals released from Terry Thompson's Zanesville home. The animals destroyed included six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon, a wolf and three mountain lions.

"When we showed up, we had 45 minutes of daylight left," Hanna said. "Tranquilization, folks, is very difficult. It's not like on TV where you pop something and it just, plop, falls over."

He said no one knew for sure how many animals were loose or captured that night, which why the dead wildlife were laid out in a row across the countryside. A photographic image of the scene was disseminated to newspapers and websites around the world.

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.

Balderson said Tuesday the bill needed more work and wouldn't be introduced this week.

Asked to respond to Hanna's comments Thursday, Balderson said in a statement: "The draft legislation continues to be a work in progress, which is complicated by such passion involving public safety and personal property. Therefore, we want to make sure we get it right, and that requires very careful dialogue with all interested parties."

Balderson's draft proposal is less strict than a framework suggested last year by a state study committee, in which Hanna took part, 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 took issue with the idea of with some owners being allowed to keep their animals because they would be grandfathered into any ban.

"I can tell you now," Hanna said. "Someone is going to get killed again if this thing isn't properly passed."

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."

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