LEBANON, Ohio -- Exotic animal owners in Warren County have not registered their dangerous wild animals with the state, despite a requirement in an Ohio law that took full effect on Jan. 1.
It’s the only southwest Ohio county without exotic animals on the state list, and Warren County officials’ are convinced that dangerous privately owned animals living in the county have been unreported.
“There is a level of risk,” said Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims. “If they care about the animals that they have, and most people I believe do or they wouldn’t have them, then they would want the state or local authorities to have some assurance that they are doing the right thing.”
It's a concern that stems from 911 records that prove the animals are there.
"We've had calls in the past for bears, foxes, cougars, venomous snakes." said Michael Bunner, Warren County Emergency Services Director.
Owners who have registered the animals they have and secured a permit may keep their animals for as long as they live—so long as they meet caging and care standards set out in the law. But, they're not allowed to buy new animals or breed those they have.
The legislation was passed after a Muskingum County man released dozens of wild beasts at a Zanesville farm, before committing suicide in October 2011.
Although 150 private owners and zoos have registered 888 dangerous animals in Ohio, it's still unknown exactly how many exotic animals are out there because the state doesn't know how many owners haven't signed up.
"We don't have a good way to quantify what [animals] have been in the state because there was no tracking of it, no record keeping and no tags that were required before [this law]," said Erica Hawkins, Communications Director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Among the 888 animals legally permitted, 27 of them are in Butler County. Fifteen exotic animals are registered in Clermont County and 167 are in Hamilton County. All but four of those Hamilton County animals belong to the Cincinnati Zoo.
While no dangerous animals are officially registered in Warren County, law enforcement officials are still expected to know how to respond to an emergency involving a wild animal.
"The biggest scare is what's out there. How do we find out and when?" said Bunner.
The new law required each county to form a Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team and to then devise a plan for responding to emergency situations by February of this year.
Warren County Commissioners unanimously approved its county plan Tuesday, which gives instructions on who local law enforcement agencies should contact if a situation does arise. The plan now moves on to the Department of Agriculture for approval, and will then be circulated among local and county law enforcement officials.
"We will provide some in-house training to our law enforcement personnel so they know what this response plan is like," said Sims. "I believe we are ready to go."
Ten people were appointed to Warren County's dangerous wild animal response team, including Sims, Bunner, Commissioner Tom Arriss, a dangerous wild animal owner, a veterinarian and the co-author of the state bill.
Sims said the response team will continue to meet regularly to perfect the county's dangerous wild animal response protocol and to encourage Warren County's wild animal owners who are unaware of the law or purposefully not following it to come forward.
"I think we always have to continue to communicate -- whether this plan is finished today, next month or next year. It's not a plan that you just put on the shelf and forget about," he said. "If there are exotic animals not registered in this county, we hope we can get them taken care of."