By James Miller
Mike Stapleton said Senate Bill 310 is out to make a criminal of him and other owners of “exotic” animals, and that’s not fair.
Stapleton operates Paw’s & Claws Animal Sanctuary in southern Marion County, where he keeps six large tigers and five black bears.
“I don’t breed animals, and I don’t exhibit them. I consider my place a true sanctuary because I’m providing a home for animals people can no longer keep,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton said the need for sanctuaries like his is a legacy of Ohio’s unregulated exotic animal trade, where private individuals have for years bought captive-bred lion, tiger and bear cubs as pets at auctions around the state.
“People buy these cubs, they steal your heart, but they eventually find they can’t afford their keep, can’t really give them the care they need, and there’s really nowhere for them to go,” Stapleton said.
He doesn’t recommend buying a cub as a household pet, but he said he understands the appeal.
Stapleton allowed his 14-year-old daughter to talk him into buying a bawling bear cub at an animal auction 10 years ago. Tabitha has since grown up, moved out and started a family of her own. But Ginger the bear still lives at Stapleton’s compound. Ginger, a petite female, shares a small pen with an 800-pound neutered male black bear named Grunt. Because black bears are native to Ohio, they are not considered “exotic” and can be kept with a permit issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
It wasn’t long after Ginger’s arrival that people began to approach Stapleton and ask him to take in an animal that had outgrown the cub cuteness, including Shurkan, a huge Siberian male tiger that rubs his chin against his chain-link enclosure until Stapleton reaches over to scratch his enormous head.
“Every one of my cats likes people,” said Stapleton, a former military cop who works full time at a conveyor belt factory in Union County.
Shurkan presses his massive head against the fence as Stapleton rubs his nose against the big cat’s whiskers and scratches his ears. Anyone who has owned a house cat would recognize the gesture of affection.
“He’s really just a big baby,” Stapleton said. “I could take food out of his mouth if I wanted to, but I would never try.”
Stapleton has learned big cat care from a network of other sanctuaries, and has a sympathetic veterinarian come out to check on his animals annually. The large amount of meat required is donated from a local grocery store, and a local hog farmer donates the occasional sow. Road-kill deer supplements the big cats’ diet during winter months, which Stapleton said the tigers prefer over all other foods.
The tiger pens, at 10 feet by 15 feet and 10 feet tall, seem small given the size of the animals, but conform to U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, Stapleton said.
There are no rules governing the ownership of an 800-pound Siberian tiger in Ohio, but Stapleton said he has been working to bring his facility up to USDA animal care standards. One standard is installing a 10-foot perimeter fence around his compound to obtain an exhibitor’s permit, which will allow him to take his animals to fundraising events.
However, he stopped work on the improvements after Senate Bill 310 was introduced.
He’s convinced the bill is written to end private ownership and confiscate animals.
“I’m all for reasonable regulations of owners, like cage sizes and proper care and reasonable fees and all,” Stapleton said. “But SB 310 is zero-compromise with private owners.”
Senate Bill 310 was introduced by state Sen. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, in wake of the Oct. 18 incident near Zanesville when sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to an exotic animal sanctuary owned by Terry W. Thompson. Thompson had released more than 50 animals – including lions, tigers, wolves and bears – from their pens before killing himself. Law enforcement officials, scrambling to contain the animals, shot and killed 48 animals, some of which were endangered species.
The bill, crafted by a group selected by Gov. John Kasich, generally forbids private ownership or sale of dangerous animals after Jan. 1, 2014. Exceptions are made for zoos and some approved wildlife sanctuaries. Requirements for current owners include registering their animals with the state, paying per-animal fees, acquiring liability insurance and implanting microchips in animals to help identify them in case of escape.
For Stapleton, the new law would require him to apply for a wildlife shelter permit, pay a non-refundable $1,000 annual permit fee, and require him to carry $500,000 of liability insurance.
Stapleton said he couldn’t afford the insurance even if he could find it.
He said the law was crafted by conservationist and TV personality Jack Hanna and accredited zoos to take animals out of the hands of private owners.
“I know that Jack Hanna was rattled by what he saw in Zanesville,” Stapleton said. “I understand that. But now we are all being treated like a Terry Thompson, and that’s not fair.”
“I acquired these animals legally, and they are my property,” Stapleton said. “That’s a right and a liberty of mine.”
Stapleton was among a crowd of exotic animal owners that packed a hearing room at the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday to testify before the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Sporting large buttons proclaiming “No on SB 310,” some questioned the constitutionality of the state confiscating animals the protesters said they acquired legally and considered private property.
But the most compelling testimony came from exotic animal owners who have hand-raised captive-bred animals from cubs, and fear for their future if they are confiscated under the proposed law.
Evelyn Shaw told the committee she feared a “Nazi death camp for exotic animals” once the state starts to collect animals from owners. She reminded the committee that although accredited zoos helped craft the new restrictions on exotic animal ownership, none have agreed to take possession of surrendered animals.
Shaw, who owns a 15-year-old neutered cougar, testified that her Pataskala property is slightly short of the one-acre requirement under SB 310, one of many requirements of the proposed law.
“No private owner can afford the fees and insurance required, and I have not found a member of the Ohio Insurance Institute who will even offer insurance for exotic animals,” Shaw said.
“This bill would either cause the death of my animals or force me to go from a law-abiding citizen to a criminal.”
About 200 opponents attended the third hearing at the statehouse, but only a handful were allowed to address the committee, chaired by Sen. Cliff Hite. The Findlay Republican represents District 1, which includes Hardin County.
Later, Stapleton said he felt he had a great relationship with his neighbors, but he admitted he angered some people in his surrounding township after Grunt, his 800-pound black bear, escaped his pen and wandered around his property in April 2011. Stapleton was able to lure the hand-raised bear back into his pen with a bag of cookies before a deputy and wildlife officer arrived. He wasn’t cited after officers determined the bear was secure, but some people wanted Stapleton’s animals gone. The incident was less than a year removed from a fatal mauling of a 24-year-old sanctuary employee by a black bear about 20 miles southwest of Cleveland.
“Nobody was in danger from Grunt, but of course nobody knew that,” Stapleton said.
Marion County Sheriff Tim Bailey, who remembered the bear escape, was satisfied with Stapleton’s response after an ODNR inspector approved the cage repairs the following day.
“We don’t have any special issues with him,” Bailey said. “I don’t have any issues with the welfare of the animals. Until someone says it’s against the law to keep lions, tigers and bears, he has a right to keep them.”
One of the provisions of Senate Bill 310 requires that owners of exotic animals have an escape plan worked out with local law enforcement in the event animals get loose. Bailey and Stapleton agreed that’s a good idea.
“It’s only common sense,” Bailey said. “I would hope they (the owners) would welcome us as partners. You could never anticipate what happened in Muskingum County, and I’d hate to kill a healthy animal, but I’d do what it would take to protect the community.”
Stapleton agreed, saying he would shoot his own animals before letting them harm anybody. But he bristles when reminded of the Muskingum County tragedy.
“Those animals didn’t escape, they were set free by a very depressed man,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton would like to see SB 310 die in committee, but at minimum, he’d like to see owners like himself grandfathered in so they could keep their animals, even with stricter rules. He has written the governor and every member of the Agriculture and Wildlife Committee. He also has written to state Sen. David Burke, asking the bill be dropped or amended to help existing owners.
He said he has not received any replies. Phone calls to Burke’s office were not returned in time for this story.
Another round of committee hearings on the bill are scheduled for April 17, and Stapleton said he’ll try to testify again.
“I will protect the public and I will protect my animals,” said Stapleton, who believes the state will have little choice but to euthanize exotic animals confiscated under the bill as currently written.
“SB 310 will make me a criminal, because they are not taking my animals,” Stapleton said. The Marion Star