TOLEDO, Ohio – A judge ordered the state to return a dozen exotic animals — including several tigers and a lion — to their owner on Wednesday, just hours after they were taken from an animal sanctuary near Toledo.
Ohio authorities had already seized the animals and were transporting them to a holding facility near Columbus when the judge ordered that they be returned for their safety.
State officials moved to take the animals after denying the owner a permit to keep them earlier this month. Inspectors earlier found insufficient fencing and other problems, the Ohio Department of Agriculture said.
It's not clear yet when the animals could be returned.
State veterinarians first will evaluate the animals, which were tranquilized on Wednesday before they were loaded into trucks and taken from the sanctuary, to determine when they're ready for the 130-mile return trip, said Erica Hawkins, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
"We're not going to transport them until they're safe," she said.
It's possible the state could also look into other legal options, Hawkins said.
The owner of the facility just outside Toledo has been fighting to keep the animals since October, when the state said he needed to voluntarily surrender them because he had failed to get the necessary permits to keep them.
Kenny Hetrick hoped to keep the animals after volunteers helped him improve his facility. Among the animals on the site are a black leopard, a lion, a bear, a bobcat and a handful of tigers. Some of the tigers were formerly used as mascots at Massillon's Washington High School.
Regulators denied Hetrick's permit because it was filed extremely late and inspectors had several concerns about how the animals were housed, Hawkins said.
An inspection found that the fencing was not adequate, some padlocks and chains were not secured and some cages had exposed metal that could have harmed the animals, she said.
Exotic animal owners in Ohio were required to obtain the state permits by the beginning of 2014.
The state began requiring permits and toughened laws on private ownership after the 2011 release of dozens of wild animals by a suicidal owner at his eastern Ohio farm in Zanesville. Fearing for public safety, authorities hunted down and killed most of those animals, including black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions.
In order to obtain a permit, owners now must pass a background check, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show they can properly contain and care for the animal.