Published August 31, 2010
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The bear that recently killed a caretaker in a Cleveland suburb was the latest example of animal violence in a state that has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.
After a standoff between the Humane Society and agriculture interests, state officials are crafting restrictions on the ownership of dangerous wild pets. But the killer beast and others owned by former bear-wrestling entrepreneur Sam Mazzola, who had lost his federal license to exhibit exotic animals, would have been grandfathered out of them.
"It's just a free-for-all in Ohio, and Sam Mazzola is just an example of that," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "Tigers, wolves, bears in a suburban Lorain County community: It is a disaster waiting to happen."
The death in Ohio and attacks elsewhere — including the maiming of a Connecticut woman by her friend's pet chimpanzee and a 2-year-old Florida girl squeezed to death by her family's python — highlight that the patchwork of federal, state and local laws on keeping dangerous wild animals at home has holes.
Mazzola had the proper state permit to keep the black bear, a species native to Ohio, on his property. He also kept wolves, tigers and a lion, something he was free to do because Ohio and at least four other states — Alabama, Idaho, Missouri and Montana — impose few or no restrictions on the ownership of non-native animals kept solely as pets, according to a review of state regulations by The Associated Press.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates animals exhibited to the public but not private ownership. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires permits for native endangered and threatened species but doesn't normally track non-native, endangered species unless they are bought and sold across state borders.
The Humane Society cut a deal this year with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and leading farm groups that traded pulling an animal cruelty measure off the November ballot for certain animal protections, including a ban on exotic pets. Farm groups opposed the ballot measure, which would have imposed treatment and caging requirements on livestock, as threatening to Ohio's $93 billion agricultural industry.
Under the original version of the proposed Ohio regulations, owners could have kept existing dangerous pets like Mazzola's but not have been able to breed them or replace them when they died.
Strickland has now ordered that the new rules allow the state to pull animals away from owners who have engaged in misconduct, such as losing their federal license, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said Tuesday. The rules will not ban exotic animals from zoos, research centers and existing athletic mascot programs, she said.
Many exotic pet owners in Ohio and elsewhere believe big animals — especially predators such as lions, tigers, bears and cougars — are no longer safe in the wild because of habitat loss, public fear and poaching. They view themselves as conservationists.
"Of the overall amount of people who actually have snakes as pets, who actually have chimpanzees as pets, these incidents are a very small percentage," said Cindy Huntsman, whose Stump Hill Farm near Massillon houses 250 animals.
According to a database of publicized exotic-pet escapes and attacks since 1990 kept by the animal rights group Born Free USA, Ohio ranks fifth in the number of episodes that hurt or killed a human — 14. The leader, Florida, has had 43, followed by Texas with 19, New York with 18 and California with 16. Alabama ties Ohio with 14.
The Ohio bear attack occurred Aug. 19 when caretaker Brent Kandra, 24, took the animal out of its cage for feeding at Mazzola's menagerie. Mazzola's federal license to exhibit the bear was revoked after animal rights activists complained about his practice of taking money to let people wrestle Ceasar, another bear he owned. But he was still free to keep the animals.
Most people who work regularly with exotic beasts know and accept the risks, Huntsman said, comparing it to being a farmer or working with killer whales at SeaWorld.
Mazzola reflected that attitude in comments to reporters the day after the fatal attack, showing off a facial scar he got from an encounter with a bear and saying he had a total of 2,000 stitches from his time working with animals.
"These are the things that happen when you deal and love these type of animals," he said.
Tom Burrington, 68, a retiree who lives two doors from Mazzola, recalled after the attack that one of the man's bears once rolled over a neighbor, who had to go to the hospital.
"It was a big joke," Burrington said. "They said the bear sat on a guy, but it was not funny to the safety forces. There wasn't anything funny about it."
A federal judge on Friday ordered mental health treatment for Mazzola as new terms of his probation sentence after pleading guilty in 2009 to transporting a bear to Toledo and selling a skunk without a license. Mazzola's attorney didn't return a message Monday seeking comment.
Animal rights groups have used attacks like the one that killed Kandra to push for tougher regulations elsewhere.
After a friend's 200-pound pet chimpanzee mauled and blinded a Connecticut woman in 2009, state lawmakers voted to ban ownership of large primates and other potentially dangerous animals, such as bears, leopards and wolves.
Since the Florida girl was suffocated by her family's Burmese python last year, it has become illegal for individuals there to own them and six other large, exotic reptile species.
Born Free USA considers it inhumane to keep large, wild animals in captivity even if they don't hurt anyone, Executive Vice President Adam Roberts said.
Exotic pet ownership also includes the risk of infectious disease, damage to the environment when pets are set free or escape, and a growing financial burden on animal rescue groups that run sanctuaries for animals that are abandoned, he said.
The Association of Zoos & Aquariums recommends against exotic pet ownership in part because of the lethal diseases wild animals can carry: distemper and rabies in carnivores; herpes in monkeys; and salmonella in reptiles. Vaccines used on domestic animals often don't work on their wild cousins, the group notes.
"People see wild animals and they see them as cute, as something they want to have, want to hold, want to covet," Roberts said. "Then they get bigger and more dangerous and the owner is in over their head."
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Conn., Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and Tom Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.