Exotic animal owner hisses at new state ban
By Lee Murray
Dee cradles one of her 8-week-old alligators in her hands. At 12 inches, George is a manageable and fascinating exotic pet, not noticeably different in size or temperament from any other pet reptile for sale in Ohio’s pet stores.
“Everything I own, I guess you could say, is kind of outrageous,” laughed Dee. The 20-year-old has been a collector of exotic reptiles for five years. Despite the perceived risks involved, Dee is not breaking any laws by keeping her animals in her house. Not yet.
That is about to change. In May , Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed S.B. 130, introducing an outright ban on the sale and purchase of all alligators in Ohio. This ruling is part of a law that controls the sale of a broad range of exotic animals, outlawing many large snakes, big cats, wolves, and non-human primates.
Dee purchased George and his sister, Stella, in June. They cost $85 each, plus shipping, from a breeder she found online. No questions asked. George is slightly larger than Stella, and he will eventually grow to between 11 and 14 feet. Stella makes tiny repetitive croaking sounds as Dee describes her collection of creatures. The sound, Dee said, is Stella calling for her momma.
George and Stella live with Dee—who asked TheNewsOutlet not to use her last name because she is worried about attracting attention to her collection of pets. Dee and her husband share their Vienna house with two ball pythons, two redtail boas, five reticulated pythons and a Sulcata tortoise. Her smallest python is 6 feet long, and her largest is over 12 feet.
The alligators and many of the larger snakes that Dee owns will fall under the ban.
“There will be hard and fast requirements such as minimum acreage, cage gauge, height requirements, and size requirements,” said Erica Pitchford of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for overseeing the new laws. “Those will be stipulated by an advisory board that is pulling together in September.”
George and Stella will outgrow their 55-gallon tank within the next couple of years. They will eventually move, Dee said, to a larger enclosure that she plans to build in her basement. Dee’s basement enclosure will probably not meet the licensing requirements, but she is not about to surrender her animals without a fight.
“If they want to take my animals…out of my dead hands. That’s the only way they’re going to get them,” said Dee.
Damien Oxier, who runs Arrowhead Reptile Rescue,has pulled alligators from creeks and streams, and recently from a water treatment plant where one alligator was discovered by workers, who suspect the animal was flushed down a toilet.
Oxier, whose official title is “herpetologist,” said his Cincinnati-based lizard and reptile organization services much of Ohio.
“Most of the ones you hear about in Ohio end up making their way to me,” Oxier said.
Oxier is concerned about how the new law will impact his organization, the only one in the state that regularly takes in pet alligators. Arrowhead stores the rescued alligators in a holding tank and releases them once a year at a nature reserve In Florida.
“I have no idea how many alligators we’re talking about here in the state of Ohio,” said Oxier. “I take in about 10 or 12 a year…some of those are surrendered by their owners, some are released in the wild and we’ve fished them out of creeks or streams, some are confiscations by law enforcement, some are owner abandonments,” he said.
Oxier believes that owners like Dee are not a rarity. He estimates that there are more than 1,000 alligators in captivity in Ohio, many as pets in people’s homes. It is hard to talk in definite terms because there is currently no regulation or registering requirements. The ban will drive many city dwelling owners, he believes, to abandon their animals or try to use his organization to avoid hefty fines and the level-five felony charges that are being suggested as a deterrent.
He has already seen an increase.
“I have got four in the last week. Just in the last couple weeks, we’ve had four alligators and three Burmese pythons, which are also going to be on the illegal list. We’re already seeing an increase and we’re expecting to get absolutely bombarded with them in the next year-and-a-half,” Oxier said.
Half of Arrowhead’s funding comes from donations, and half comes from the volunteers who work with the organization. Rescue funds are limited.
“The problem is, it’s expensive to take them to Florida,” said Oxier. The transport truck needs to be climate controlled, fuel costs are high with the heavy loads, and permit requirements to get the alligators in and out of Florida involve a lot of red tape. Oxier does the trip once a year now, and that is close to Arrowhead’s financial limit.
“I don’t have the resources to do that once a month,” Oxier reiterated.
Despite their hunting instinct, alligator attacks are rare. In fact, there are no recorded incidents of any alligator attack in Ohio, said Oxier, and the only alligators that can survive in Ohio are those that are in captivity. Alligators cannot survive the low temperatures of even the mildest Ohio winter, and they are not a migratory species. The only ones that are found outside enclosures in Ohio are ones that have been released from enclosures in Ohio and have not yet been killed by the elements.
Last fall in Zanesville, troubled exotic animal owner Terry Thompson suffered a breakdown. He released all 53 of his animals, which included included wolves, lions, and bears, from their enclosures on his estate. He killed himself immediately after, and the animals were hunted down by local law enforcement. The ensuing panic and slaughter of all but four of the escaped animals happened as the bill was being drafted. Oxier believes that the timing of that incident in Zanesville gave the bill traction and enabled it to be passed quickly.
Responsible pet ownership was not factored into the decision making process, Oxier said. Of the many governmental bodies and non-profit agencies that made up the alphabet soup of acronymically named organizations in the task force that met to outline the bill, only one pet owner organization—The Ohio Association of Animal Owners—was consulted, Oxier said.
Oxier said that they were largely ignored. The homepage of the OAAO website now features a photograph of a protest sign that reads: “Stop Gov. Kasich and Jack Hanna’s animal eradication plan.” Oxier said that the focus should be on proper management of these animals and not on removing them from Ohio entirely.
“As far as the law goes, we are all for good legislation that’ll regulate the keeping of these animals,” said Oxier. “There are organizations and a few individuals that have the ability to keep these animals responsibly, and they should be allowed…If they could have just written the law and mandated that anyone who wants an alligator in the future has to meet (the) requirements…I have no problem with that. But instead they just outright banned it which means people are going to do it illegally, because there is no legal avenue.”
Dee has built her life around her animals. She has a picture on her smartphone of her largest snake. In the picture, she is helping the snake shed its skin. The snake seems compliant and docile. If the new law is enforced, Dee runs the risk of losing this snake and the alligator she is holding so delicately in her hands.
“I don’t understand how you can pass a law without experiencing the good things that come out of this,” she said. “The people who propose these laws have never owned any of these animals. They know nothing about taking care of them, nothing about how they really are.”
“I can relate to them. I’m a bit misunderstood, like they are. I believe that everything, you, and me, we’re all animals and we all have the same basic needs,” she said.
But Oxier is keen to make the distinction between keeping these animals in a proper enclosure at a wildlife shelter and keeping them as pets at home.
“Alligators… do not belong in people’s homes as pets, simple as that,” Oxier said. “We’re not against good legislation that regulates that.”