Lions and Tigers and — Snakes? The Massive Knee Jerk in Ohio

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

“The strictest law often causes the most serious wrong.”
~ Cicero

On March 8, 2012, Senator Troy Balderson (R) of Zaneville introduced SB 310, which seeks to enact a sweeping law to establish requirements governing the possession of multiple species of animals, which will be designated as “dangerous wild animals” as well as multiple species of snakes which will be designated under the law as “restricted snakes.”  While strict control of dangerous animals is good and necessary policy, including snakes, especially constrictor snakes, which have not posed a threat in Ohio, is overbroad and over reaching.

Since 1990, Ohio has had two fatalities pertaining to snakes. In both cases, the owners were bitten and killed by their own venomous viper snakes.  There are two additional incidents involving injury but not death where venomous snakes bit people: one private owner and one zoo keeper. In that time period, no snake, not even a venomous one, has had an incident with a member of the public at large.

There has not been one incident since 1990 with a constrictor snake in Ohio.  None.

SB 310 was born out of a tragic incident.  On October 18, 2011, Zanesville, Ohio police began receiving 911 calls of lions, bears, tigers, and other large, dangerous animals wandering loose.  The animals, 56 in all, belonged to a man named Terry Thompson, who had kept them on a game preserve and who chose to turn them loose just prior to killing himself.

No humans were harmed by the loosed animals, but unfortunately, the animals were not so lucky.  49 lions, tigers, bears, wolves, mountain lions and a baboon were slaughtered. Most of these were shot and killed by law enforcement officers within 1500 feet of their pens.  One was hit by a car.  Why these animals were massacred instead of tranquilized is an open question.  If officers were close enough to shoot them with bullets, they were close enough to shoot them with tranquilizer darts.

As a result of this incident, Ohio received much attention, and criticism, for its failure to have any laws regarding the ownership of exotic animals.  That criticism is legitimate.

In some respects, SB 310 hits its mark.  Large cats, bears, and non-human primates are dangerous animals.  They are fast moving, frequently aggressive, and can do substantial damage to a person in a matter of seconds.  In addition, the care of these animals needs to be overseen in order to provide humane conditions for the animals.  Terry Thompson plead guilty in 2010 to multiple counts of possession of illegal firearms, including semi automatic weapons.  There must be a statutory procedure in place to ensure that people who are keeping large and dangerous animals do not have criminal backgrounds or convictions relating to animal cruelty.  Ohio needs to have restrictions on dangerous animals for the welfare of humans and animals alike, and those restrictions should be strict and onerous.  These animals are not pets.

However, SB 310 tremendously over reaches in terms of its section on “restricted snakes.”  Because Ohio is not and has never had a problem with snakes posing a threat to the public or the environment, legislation is not necessary or warranted.  SB 310’s provisions with respect to snakes are so onerous that they will serve to be a de facto ban on the ownership of multiple species of constrictor snakes (anacondas, pythons and boa constrictors) as well as venomous snakes.

There is a conservation concern with eliminating private snake breeders.  In snake breeding, the private sector breeders are ten years ahead of zoos in terms of the species reproduced and overall success rate.  Many of these species are threatened in their natural environments due to  extreme habitat loss and loss of species diversity and density. Without the private breeders, these animals may be forever lost.  With private reptile breeders, there are few species that cannot be successfully maintained in perpetuity in captivity. They can prevent extinction.

SB 310’s snake prohibition will also damage Ohio’s economy.  The reptile industry in Ohio generates approximately $30 million annually.  Eliminating private breeders will have a deleterious effect on Ohio’s small business owners in these very tough economic times.  Ohio’s projected budget shortfall for 2012 is estimated to be $3 billion and its unemployment rate as of January 2012 was 7.7%.

Senator Balderson should be commended for his swift action in addressing Ohio’s lack of regulation of exotic animals. However, the entire section on “restricted snakes” should be excised from SB 310.  It is unnecessary and burdensome and it will damage Ohio’s economy, Ohio’s small businesses and multiple species of snakes that need private reptile breeders to ensure their survival.