COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Four owners of exotic animals in Ohio are suing the state's agriculture department and its director over a new law regulating dangerous wildlife, contending the restrictions threaten their First Amendment and property rights.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Columbus federal court. It comes as the owners faced a Monday deadline to register their animals with the state.
The owners' attorney said Monday that the state has agreed not to enforce certain provisions of the law until there's a hearing on the lawsuit. Attorney Robert Owens said lawyers were still reviewing the agreement, but a court order detailing the arrangement was expected in the coming days.
For instance, under the agreement, Ohio officials wouldn't refer owners for prosecution if they didn't register their animals by Monday.
Under the 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.
A spokeswoman for the agriculture department declined to comment on the lawsuit and the agreement.
The owners claim the law forces them to join private associations and possibly give up their animals without compensation. They also take issue with a requirement that the animals be implanted with a microchip before they're registered, so the creatures can be identified if they get lost or escape.
The state has said it would work with owners on the microchip requirement.
As of Monday, Ohio's agriculture department said it had received 130 registration forms accounting for 483 dangerous wild animals in the state.
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 owner Terry Thompson last fall released 50 creatures from an eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville before he committed suicide.
Authorities killed 48 of the animals, fearing for the public's safety. Two others were presumed eaten by other animals. The six surviving animals were placed under quarantine at the zoo. Five were later returned to Thompson's widow, Marian Thompson. The zoo had to euthanize one leopard.
Marian Thompson was among those who registered animals with the state. She submitted information for the two leopards, two primates and a bear that survived.
Registration forms obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request also show she has two 11-week-old leopards on the property.
The owners suing the state have multiple breeds of exotic animals. They are Terry Wilkins, who owns a reptile and amphibian store called Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus; Cyndi Huntsman, owner of Stump Hill Farm in Massillon; Mike Stapleton, owner of Paws & Claws Animal Sanctuary in Prospect; and Sean Trimbach, owner of Best Exotics LLC in Medway, where he breeds, raises and sells exotic animals.
In their lawsuit, the owners say the cost of implanting a microchip in the animal can exceed the animal's value. They also contend that joining certain groups to become exempt from the law means they would have to associate and fund organizations with which they disagree.
The law exempts 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.
While the law took effect last month, some aspects have yet to kick in. For instance, a permit process for owners won't begin until next October.
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.