- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2012

REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio (AP) — Ohio officials are clearing the way for the return of five surviving exotic animals to a woman whose husband released dozens of wild creatures last fall and then committed suicide.

The OhioDepartment of Agriculture announced the decision Monday at an agency hearing in which the state was to defend its authority to quarantine the animals — two leopards, two primates and a bear — on suspicion of infectious diseases.

A spokeswoman for the agency said the state had exhausted its authority in the case and that the state’s agriculture director would lift the quarantine order that was placed on the animals in October. Medical results released last week showed all five animals are free of the dangerously contagious or infectious diseases for which they were tested.

That means the animals can be returned to Marian Thompson of Zanesville, though it’s unclear when that might happen. Logistics for retrieving the animals will have to be worked out between Mrs. Thompson and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which has been holding the five creatures, said agriculture spokesman Erica Pitchford.

Once the animals are returned to Mrs. Thompson, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check in on their well-being or requires improvements to conditions in which they are kept, Ms. Pitchford said.

“That authority lies solely with the local humane society and county prosecutor,” she said. The humane society could intervene with help from the county prosecutor if there was an investigation into animal cruelty.

Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said the facility must follow certain protocols to prepare for the animals to be handed back to Mrs. Thompson. For instance, she said, the animals must be sedated for the transfer, but they cannot eat or drink for 24 hours before being given the sedative.

Ms. Peters said the animals had been fed on Monday, and the earliest they could be moved would be Wednesday. She said other details were being worked out, but she didn’t yet have additional information.

Mrs. Thompson is the widow of Terry Thompson, who released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — from his eastern Ohio farm Oct. 18 before he committed suicide. Authorities killed 48 of the animals as a public safety measure.

Three leopards, two primates and a bear survived and were taken to the Columbus Zoo. One leopard had to be euthanized at the zoo in January, and the other animals have been there since.

Mrs. Thompson’s attorney, Robert McClelland, said his client has adequate cages for the surviving animals, according to a letter obtained last week by the Associated Press through a public records request. The state’s agriculture director told Mr.  McClelland earlier this month that the Agriculture Department required proof of the arrangements Mrs. Thompson has made for the animals‘ confinement and care.

Mr. McClelland and Mrs. Thompson declined to answer reporters’ question about the animals‘ return as they left Monday’s hearing at the department’s headquarters in Reynoldsburg, just outside Columbus.

State officials issued a quarantine order because they said they were concerned about reports that the animals lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease. The order prevented the Columbus Zoo from releasing the animals until it’s clear they’re free of dangerous diseases.

Tom Stalf, the Columbus Zoo’s chief operating officer, said in a sworn statement released Friday by the Agriculture Department that he was at the Thompsons’ property the day the animals were released, where he observed that two primates were held in separate, small bird cages. A brown bear was also kept in a cage that wasn’t fit for its size, he said.

“The bear was very aggressive and was biting at the wire cage,” Mr. Stalf said in the affidavit, which is dated April 24.

Mr. Thompson’s suicide, the animals‘ release and their killings led lawmakers to re-examine the state’s restrictions on exotic pets, which are considered some of the nation’s weakest. The state Senate recently passed a bill that would ban new ownership of monkeys, lions and other exotic animals. It now goes to the House for consideration.

Gov. John Kasich, the Columbus Zoo and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation support the measure, which would allow current owners to keep their animals by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014 and meeting other strict conditions. Facilities accredited by some national zoo groups would be exempt from the bill, along with sanctuaries and research institutions.

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