By Eric Freedman
Lions and tigers and bears — oh trouble!
Legal trouble, that is, for Kenneth Hetrick, who is enmeshed in litigation over his ownership of a menagerie of exotic animals seized by the Ohio Department of Agriculture under the state’s 2012 dangerous wild animal law.
According to the department, Hetrick failed to comply with that law limiting who can get a permit to own wild animals and how they must be treated.
One Court of Appeals panel recently unanimously rejected Hetrick’s argument that the department failed to follow proper procedures in enforcing the law. His lawyer, Karen Novak of Toledo, is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.
In a separate case, a different Court of Appeal panel is reviewing a lower court judge’s order requiring the Agriculture Department to return the nine surviving animals that are being housed out of state.
The legislature passed the law after a 2011 incident near Zanesville when Terry Thompson “created a public safety crisis when he released numerous dangerous wild animals from his private preserve before committing suicide,” the Court of Appeals said. Among Thompson’s 56 temporarily liberated animals: wolves, bears, tigers, lions and a baboon.
Hetrick, who operates Tiger Ridge Exotics at his home near Perrysburg, has kept dangerous wild animals for about 40 years without an escape and without injuring anyone, according to his court filings. He belongs to the Wood County Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team and has had a federal exhibitor’s license since 1988.
In October 2012, he registered 15 dangerous wild animals — two lions, seven tigers, two grizzlies, one liger, one black leopard and one bobcat — with the department and kept them in fenced enclosures and outbuildings behind his house. [As Great Lakes Echo previously reported, the Court of Appeals ruled in December 2015 that bobcats are exempt from the dangerous wild animal law.]
In November 2013, the department told Hetrick he must apply for a permit by the Jan. 1, 2014, deadline. The law authorizes permits for three types of facilities–wildlife shelters, breeding and rescue facilities.
However, he didn’t submit a rescue facility application until October 2014, according to legal filings, and the department turned him down after an inspection found violations of the animal care and caging standards.
Problems included “green film and slime residue” in the animals’ drinking water receptacles and lack of a roof for the leopard’s enclosure. Also, a perimeter fence too close to the enclosures, and chain link fencing attached to the outside rather than the inside of fence posts.
A later inspection found wet bedding, frozen water buckets, “fecal matter and food scraps” in the enclosures and keys inside or near locks that could allow “unauthorized access to enclosures,” according to court documents.
Hetrick refused to voluntarily turn over the animals to the department, so officials obtained a court order and removed 11 animals from the property, the appeals court said. The state veterinarian and the vice president of animal health at the Columbus Zoo were among those who witnessed the transfer.
The animals went to sanctuaries in Florida, Arizona and South Dakota. After a U.S. Agriculture Department inspection found signs of neglect at the South Dakota facility, his animals there were transported to a shelter in Colorado.
Nine animals are now surviving, Novak said: two in Arizona, three in Colorado and four in Florida. The state pays to keep them in the sanctuaries, said Mark Bruce, the department’s communications director.
The other two that were seized have died.
In a Jan. 26 opinion written by Judge William Klatt, the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus overruled objections to how the Agriculture Department’s enforced the law, and found sufficient evidence to support the decision to take custody of the animals.
Meanwhile, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo will hear the state’s challenge to a Wood County judge’s finding that the department violated Hetrick’s right to equal protection of the law. In December that judge directed the department to return the animals and issue a permit, but that order is blocked while the state’s appeal continues.
The appeals court has authorized Hetrick to have a veterinarian evaluate his animals at his own expense until the appeal is resolved. The department said it has fully cooperated with his request to visit the rescue facility in Florida that holds four animals.
Novak, his lawyer, said the department hadn’t denied anybody else a permit for the same reasons it gave Hetrick and had worked with other exotic animal owners.
“We think they targeted him and were making an example of him,” she said.
She also described a catch-22 situation: “The state has continuously argued the only reason they took the animal is he didn’t have a permit, but they denied the permit.”
But the state argued in court papers, “The facts are undisputed that Hetrick had possession of 11 dangerous wild animals on Jan. 28, 2015, and did not have an appropriate permit. Accordingly, the transfer order was lawfully issued.”