Exotic Animal Laws Vary from State to State

PHOTO: A group of Siberian tiger cubs (Panthera tigris altaica) sitting in snow, Bavaria, Germany.
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Incidents involving exotic animals kept in private may appear to be an oddity but, according to Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy and wildlife organization, they are not rare.

In fact, this week's incident in Ohio could be a cautionary tale for states across the country.

"It's up to the states to pass strong laws prohibiting the citizens that live there from keeping these dangerous exotics," said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA. "Ohio is one of the bad actors as far as we're concerned -- a state that has very limited regulations on the keeping of exotic animals, especially as pets. ... We've been pushing in Ohio for them to change their law for many years."

Some states are playing catch-up as exotic animals have become more prevalent, said David Favre, a professor of animal law at Michigan State University.

"The animals are becoming more available -- Internet sales, auctions, things like that," he said. "The market for exotic animals has been growing and with that, of course, comes the damage as well."

Born Free USA estimated that there are more tigers in private hands, not including accredited zoos, in the U.S. than there are left in the wild in the entire world.

"The ease of access to these animals is astounding and, of course, they are reasonably affordable," Roberts told ABC News. "Some of the animals could go for a few hundred dollars, some for a few thousand, but I think there are probably purebred dogs that cost more from some places than a tiger in this country."

Since 1990, Born Free USA said, there have been more than 1,500 incidents involving exotic animals and at least five percent of those have taken place in Ohio.

"It seems to take some terrible act, and then legislators are willing to move ahead," said Favre. "These are fairly recently adopted laws in the past 10 years. They have been being adopted by states, so its sort of a growing list, and I suspect this will be a motivation in Ohio."

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland banned people from bringing more exotic animals into Ohio in January, but allowed owners to keep the animals they already had.

Current Gov. John Kasich let the emergency ban expire in April and opted to convene a group to study the issue.

"Around the country, you have a patchwork of state laws where about 21 states have some sort of prohibition on the keeping of exotic animals as pets," Roberts said. "Eight states have a partial ban, where certain species are prohibited, but not others. Thirteen states require permitting or a license scheme, and the other eight states have little or no regulations whatsoever. And Ohio is in the bottom category."

Despite the disparity in regulation, Favre said, the responsibility to control the animals lies with the states, not the federal government.

"It clearly is a primarily state issue," Favre said. "And it's so easily handled at the state level with the simple passage of a one-page law that says you're prohibited from having large mammals."

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