Over the clinking of silverware on fish, chicken and lasagna, celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna started his speech at a Sandusky conference banquet with a complaint.
No preventative legislation has been inacted since October, when dozens of lions, tigers, bears and other wild animals were released by their suicidal owner and then killed by authorities in Zanesville, Ohio.
Hanna aired the same complaint two days later at a Columbus conference of the Ohio Newspaper Association, which made national news.
“We thought we had a bill passed when I left here last week,” he told his Sandusky audience, of which I was a member. “Do you believe, everyone, that the bill ... now is in jeopardy? I'm afraid some of the people that run our state here don't quite get it.
“We're dealing with time bombs. Still in the state of Ohio we have over 200 tigers — can you imagine that?”
No federal law prohibits people from keeping wild animals as pets, and Ohio's permit system doesn't pay attention to owners who do not profit from their exotics.
On January 9, 2011, outgoing Ohio Governor Ted Strickland signed an emergency executive order banning private ownership of “big cats, bears, wolves, nonhuman primates, large constricting and venemous snakes and crocodilians.” But instead of making this permanent within 90 days, incoming Governor John Kasich told officials not to enforce it until further study of its effect on small businesses.
Then, one dreary, cloudy day, . Among the 48 animals that were killed were several endangered Bengal tigers.
Finally on February 7, a bill restricting personal ownership of dangerous wild animals was scheduled to be introduced by Republican Ohio Senator Troy Balderson (R-Zanesville). However, Balderson instead announced it wasn't ready, offering no timetable for another try.
He told the Associated Press that parts of the bill are still being drafted, and cautioned against “knee-jerk reaction” lawmaking.
As Balderson described it last week, the bill would immediately ban individuals (exempting zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities) from buying or acquiring any additional exotic animals, and would ban ownership without compliance to new caging requirements and care standards by 2014.
This ban would include ownership of lions, tigers, elephants, bears, hippos, particular dangerous reptiles and primates; however, an exception would be those primate facilities that already own them, so long as they maintain certain cage, insurance and care regulations.
Balderson's description was milder than the recommendation of the state study committee, on which Hanna served, which suggested a complete ban unless owners had all proper licenses or exemptions. But Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, was still eager for its passage.
All these months later, he said he still gets calls every other week from Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Anderson Cooper, asking when Ohio will pass a responsible bill into law. (Meanwhile, the widow of the Zanesville owner still fights to obtain the five remaining survivors of the slaughter.)
“Pretty intelligent people all over the world are asking, 'Why is this bill taking so long?' Well it's taking so long because politics have entered the bill,” Hanna said. “No one knows what party I'm in, and I'm not going to divulge that. Common sense is common sense.”
“The good Lord was with us in Zanesville, Ohio, that night, that no one was killed. Because if it had gone on that night into the day next we'd have had loss of human life, and that's a fact.”
The speed and force with which these animals can kill other animals (and if other animals, why not humans?), he added, is mindblowing. And because of waning daylight and the delay of a transquilizers to actually sedate an animal, hunting those in Zanesville was the only safe solution.
“I hope you understand that I'm not a killer of any creature,” he finished in Sandusky, before humbly receiving the first-ever Jack Hanna Resource Conservation Award from the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association. “This was the hardest thing to ever happen to me in my entire lifetime. I have to start every single speech this way — where I was in Hawaii last night, South Africa last month, Peru two months ago. Every place I go to, when they find out where I'm from, they want me to answer this question. I do the best I can do.”
“And it's not my reputation. It's the reputation of the state of Ohio, everybody. It's what we have here.”