State: Ohio wild animal law doesn't violate rights

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Attorneys for Ohio told a federal appeals court Wednesday that the state's exotic animal law gives owners a pathway to keep the creatures if they choose and doesn't violate their constitutional rights.

Several owners are suing the state's agriculture director over the rules, claiming the choices in the law are illusory.

They contend the law violates the First and Fifth Amendments by limiting their freedom of association and effectively taking their property by requiring them to implant microchips in their animals at their own expense. They argue the law includes impossible hurdles that leave owners who want to operate for-profit businesses only one option: joining zoological groups that private owners dislike.

Ohio strengthened its regulation of exotic animal ownership after a Zanesville man released dozens of his animals from his farm before committing suicide in 2011. Authorities killed most of the animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public's safety.

The owners have asked the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to strike down the law.

In a brief filed with the court on Wednesday, the state's attorneys said the owners' "desire to keep animals they cherish is understandable; their constitutional arguments are not."

The owners' attorney has said the only way for his clients to qualify for an exemption under the law is for them to join either the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Zoological Association of America -- groups he says are at odds with his clients.

But the state contends the law offers ways for the owners to keep their animals without joining the organizations. For instance, they could apply to get a wildlife shelter permit.

The state's attorneys also argued the law's microchip requirement isn't a governmental invasion of property.

"This requirement in Ohio law is no more a taking than requirements to install license plates on cars, exit signs in buildings, or fences in yards," they wrote.

And they said the issue wasn't ripe for the court to review and should be dismissed. The owners don't have a final administrative decision from the state requiring that their animals be implanted with a microchip nor do they have a state court decision denying them compensation, the state's attorneys said.

The owners' appeal comes after a federal judge in Columbus sided with the state last year in upholding the law.

The new regulations took effect in September, although some provisions have yet to kick in. Those include a permit process that goes into place in October.

Under that process, owners who want to keep their animals must obtain new state-issued permits by Jan. 1, 2014. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show inspectors they can properly contain the animals and care for them. The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by the two national zoo groups.

In upholding the law last year, U.S. District Court Judge George Smith said the court recognizes some businesses may be negatively affected by it and some owners may not be able to keep their beloved animals, but the plaintiffs failed to prove it violates their constitutional rights.

Smith said the case came down to the public interest and protecting the public from the potential dangers of exotic animals that get loose.

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