COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — State officials continue to work with owners of exotic animals to help them fully register their creatures with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, even though the state deadline for them to submit information was several weeks ago.
About 30 registrations covering roughly 200 animals were filed with the state before the Nov. 5 deadline, but they contained errors or omissions, according to the agriculture department.
One of the biggest problems with the incomplete forms was that some owners had yet to implant their wild animals with a microchip containing information to help identify them if they got lost or escaped, said Erica Pitchford Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the agriculture department.
Now the department and the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association are working to help the owners abide by the microchip requirement by connecting them to veterinarians who can perform the task.
"The ones who are making an effort to come into compliance, we're trying to let them do that as much as possible," Pitchford Hawkins said, adding that owners must keep a record of their correspondence with veterinarians.
Under a new state law, owners who don't register could face a first-degree misdemeanor charge for a first offense, and a fifth-degree felony for any subsequent offenses.
But the state isn't yet referring owners for prosecution if they have failed to register their animals. That's part of an agreement officials have with four owners who are suing the state's agriculture department and its director over the new law. The owners claim the new regulations threaten their First Amendment and property rights. A federal court hearing on the lawsuit is planned for mid-December.
A list of registrations obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that at least 114 private owners have successfully registered animals with the state. That figure doesn't include zoos or research facilities that also submitted registrations.
Ohio's restrictions on exotic animals had been among the nation's weakest.
State lawmakers worked with a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen the law after an owner last fall released 50 creatures, including black bears and Bengal tigers, from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville before he committed suicide. Authorities killed most of the animals, fearing for the public's safety.
Under the new law, current owners who want to keep their animals must obtain the new state-issued permit by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds, and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and care for it.
One of the factors of obtaining a state permit includes timely registration.
If owners are denied permits or can't meet the new requirements, the state can seize the animals.