By Erika N. Chen-Walsh
On April 26, 2012, the sixteenth version of SB 310 passed out of the Ohio Senate and moved to the Ohio House of Representatives. Even in this sixteenth revision, SB 310 is over reaching and will have a huge and negative impact on Ohio’s reptile breeders and owners. It is a sweeping, unfunded mandate that establishes an extensive and expensive permitting system for dangerous animals, restricted primates and restricted snakes with expansive powers granted to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
SB 310 continues to be fraught with problems; it continues to be a bill that is being pushed for political capitol as opposed to good law for Ohio Citizens. The sixteenth redux still allows any additional species to be added without legislative process by the Director of Agriculture through administrative rule after two year moratorium. Standards of care remain undefined. Sen. Balderson’s bill will have a deleterious effect on Ohio commerce and will destroy small businesses while failing to accomplish its primary goal: enhancing public safety. Lawmakers should vote “No” on SB 310.
In his sponsorship testimony, Senator Balderson stated that the “simple” goals of SB 310 are to: (1) protect Ohio’s citizens; (2) to preserve legitimate, law abiding individuals who care for wild animals, and (3) to put standards in place to ensure the safety of these animals. He acknowledged that the breeding and trade of snakes represents a “very large industry in Ohio.”
In fact, the reptile industry in Ohio generates approximately $30 million in revenue annually. Ohio’s unemployment rate as of March 2012 was 7.5%. Ohio’s budget deficit for 2012-2013 is estimated to be as high as $8 billion, a budget deficit that Governor Kasich has promised to close without raising taxes.
The business owners that generate that $30 million pay taxes, employ Ohio citizens, raise their families and make their livelihoods in the Buckeye State. If SB 310 passes in its current version, these Ohio business people will either go out of business, leave the state, or go underground. SB 310 will kill this viable section of commerce that Sen. Balderson himself describes as “very large.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, in spite of its undeniably deleterious effect on the Ohio economy, SB 310 still fails to protect public safety. There is simply no way to cram hundreds of species into a single “one size fits all” legislative solution. Lions, tigers, bears, and large primates are materially different from snakes and other reptiles.
Statistics on snake deaths and snake injuries have been kept since 1990. In Ohio, there has never been a death or injury to any member of the public resulting from a snake since 1990. Twenty-two years. Zero public safety issues. There have been three deaths and two injuries only to owners resulting from their own snakes in that time period.
The proponents of SB 310, with few exceptions, have been mostly professional animal rights activists and their imported experts. Proponents of SB 310 have testified regarding to exactly two of these incidents. They have further testified that the sale of cobras, vipers and other deadly venomous snakes out of paper cups at flea markets is common place throughout the State of Ohio. Even if this were true, there are no reported incidents of these alleged thousands of Dixie cup cobras harming people.
The proponents have not provided statistics on the danger of snakes, and they have provided no testimony demonstrating public safety risks from snakes in Ohio. They have not because they cannot. Those statistics do not exist. Snakes pose no safety risks to the Ohio public. Sen. Balderson’s public safety concern is valid only with respect to dangerous animals. Trying to cast his net wide to include animals that have never posed a risk to the citizens of Ohio creates the kind of large and expensive government that Ohio cannot afford.
The funding of SB 310 is something that was not addressed in the Senate. Sen. Balderson admits that it will cost Ohio taxpayers approximately $800,000.00 to implement SB 310. Sen. Hite admitted that the number of animals that will be caught in SB 310’s massive net are unknown. No one has speculated about the massive ongoing costs of running the bureaucratic behemoth created by Sen. Balderson’s bill. The only certainty is that whatever the cost of running this extensive permit system, it will fall on the shoulders of the Ohio taxpayers. The only question remaining is how much Ohio’s citizens will pay to cover the cost of this unfunded mandate. Neither Sen. Balderson nor the proponents of SB 310 has answered this question. They have not because they cannot. The Senate passed SB 310 by 30-1 without knowing how much it will cost, how many small businesses will be affected by it, and how the tax payers will cover their unfunded mandate.
SB 310 fails its third prong as well. Sen. Balderson testified that he wanted to protect animal welfare. However, SB 310 defers all provisions about animal welfare and best management practices to a future committee.
Some opponents of SB 310 have spoken out in favor of the sixteenth version because Sen. Balderson removed boa constrictors, removed constricting snakes less than 12′ long, and allowed surety bonds in certain cases instead of liability insurance. Sen. Balderson had promised prior to introducing SB 310 that boa constrictors and constricting snakes would not be included. Their inclusion, later “bargained” back, is therefore a somewhat diluted victory. It is foolish to agree to “concessions” that the legislature has taken pains to ensure can be reclaimed in two years. It is a shell game played by politicians with stakeholders and their representatives who are inexperienced at the carnival. Backing the sixteenth version of SB 310 is a death nell to snake owners and breeders in Ohio.
The real problems with SB 310 remain. These include the following:
- ANY additional species can be added after two years by administrative rule and not through legislative process (boa constrictors and small constrictors can come back into the restricted category in two years and there will be no hearings the next time);
- The insurance/surety bond requirements as written in the current version are either not obtainable or may be so onerous that the cost will preclude nearly all breeders from meeting the requirements;
- The standards of care are not defined and administrative rules could impose standards of care that are so impossible as to represent a ban on all permits;
- Constrictor snakes continue to be included in the current version; and
- The entire permit scheme in SB 310 should not apply to snakes. Permit systems are dangerous red herrings to which voters should pay attention. Once snake owners agree to a permit system, they are on a very slippery slope because modifying a permit system in place is much easier than establishing one at the outset. Once it is reasonable to permit cobras, 20′ pythons seem reasonable. Once a 20′ python requires a permit, a 10′ python should also require one, and then a 3′ python, and then an iguana, and so on.
The United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) has submitted a proposed substitute bill to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that addresses all of these concerns. Key features of the USARK proposal include:
- Defined standards of care and best management practices for all venomous snakes that include requirements for locked enclosures, provisions for the attainment and financial responsibility for anti venom, labeling requirements for all venomous snakes, including signage, identification, and escape protocols.
- A strict liability provision to make owners liable for any harms caused by restricted snakes.
- Defined protocols to protect first responders entering facilities or homes where restricted snakes are housed.
- A viable alternative to a permit system.
- Defined access for educational purposes to protect the public safety.
USARK remains committed to working with the Ohio legislature to arrive at a bill that will protect public safety, protect Ohio small business owners and commerce, and protect the welfare of reptiles. USARK will be in Columbus on May 8-10, 2012 to fight against SB 310.