Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team Prepares State-Mandated Plan

Last year, Gov. John Kasich ordered each of Ohio's 88 counties to form wild animal response teams after the owner of an exotic animal farm freed 56 animals before committing suicide.

by Marilyn Miller, McClatchy News / February 3, 2014

What if dangerous animals such as tigers, bears and lions escaped and roamed the streets in Summit County, Ohio, like the out-of-control wild animal scenario in Zanesville in October of 2011?

The Summit County Dangerous Wild Animal Response Team (DWART) will present its wild animal safety plan before Summit County Council. The state-mandated plan then has to be submitted to the Ohio Department of Agriculture before Feb. 28 for approval.

In Zanesville, Terry Thompson, a troubled owner of an exotic animal farm, freed 56 animals into the streets before committing suicide. Nearly all of the animals — including tigers, lions, bears and wolves — were killed by local authorities during a big-game hunt through the sparsely populated rural area in Southwest Ohio. The animals were housed on a 73-acre homestead.

The incident triggered a debate over the state's nonexistent laws regulating the operation and ownership of what amounts to privately owned zoos.

In March of last year, Gov. John Kasich ordered each of Ohio's 88 counties to form wild animal response teams to avoid a similar situation. The state-mandated requirement describes how Summit County will plan and provide resource support before, during and after a dangerous wild animal emergency.

"If there is an escape, there is a protocol on how to respond to it," said Summit Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Valerie De Rose, who heads the response team made up of 13 members from various agencies including law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical services, elected officials, zoo officials, public health, animal control and local media.

"Emergency phone numbers and contacts are in place. The plan entails how we are going to alert the public. We have a reverse alert system so we can make the calls; who needs to be notified -- obviously law enforcement, our responders, our public health department; what numbers do we need to contact at the state that can assist, and what do we do with the animals and how do we do that."

Copley Township officials welcomed the fact that some mechanism is in place as they recalled a potentially dangerous animal scenario in their own backyard.

For seven years, Copley Township officials stressed over the possibility of mostly untamed, exotic animals escaping the steel cages and corrals of an animal farm in Copley. It took from 2001 to 2008 before the township was able to shut down the facility, confiscate the animals and relocate them to safer environments.

"We could have had a much worse situation than in Zanesville because the exotic animal farm here had as many as 82 animals on about an acre or acre and a half of land, more animals on a smaller piece of property," township Law Director Irv Sugerman said. "We're very grateful we were able to remedy that situation and that township officials decided to take control of the situation, in part, because of the absence of state laws regulating the ownership of exotic animal farms."

The L&L Exotic Animal Farm in Copley was owned and operated by Lorenza Pearson, an exhibitor, breeder and seller. Pearson's farm was regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and had been cited for more than 900 violations over a 10-year period. In Pearson's struggle to keep wild animals, he faced environmental hazard concerns, complaints from neighbors and the mauling death of his own son.

The operation had been in existence dating as far back as the 1980s. It was between 1999 and 2005 that Pearson had as many as 82 exotic animals, including lions, tigers, bears, links, leopards, bobcats, cougars, a jaguar and a fox. The animals were caged outside his home, which was located on a dead end street in a neighborhood of about a dozen modest homes on Columbus Avenue in southern Copley Township.

Trustees sued Pearson for creating a threat and public nuisance with his wild animals. Township officials told the court the animals were not secure enough in their cages and were a potential danger to neighbors.

The township joined suit with the Summit County health department on health concerns. Their cases were in court from 2001 to 2008 before they were able to close the operation, confiscate the animals and relocate them to safer environments.

"Our No. 1 goal in the Copley Police Department was to make certain we assured the safety of the community," said Police Chief Michael Mier, who is part of the response team as well as township Trustee Helen Humphrys. "The trustees took the leadership position that we stay on top of this. If something like that had happened here this animal farm was right on the edge of Akron near Rolling Acres Mall, very close to highly populated areas, which was different than Zanesville's mostly rural area."

The only reference to an animal escape from the Copley Township facility was never reported to police. Mier became aware of it at a community meeting (September 2001) organized to talk about neighborhood concerns of the exotic animal farm.

"A neighbor woman said she walked outside her home one day only to discover a large alligator sunning himself in her backyard. But she never called police," said Mier. "She called the owner (Pearson) and he retrieved the alligator."

Mier said one of the things required with the state law is that people register their exotic animals. The requirement will give the team a more realistic record of where the animals are, not just in Summit County but in contiguous counties as well.

So far the plan includes a known list of about 200 dangerous and wild animals in and around Summit County. The list identifies 85 animals in Cuyahoga County, 43 animals in Stark County and 31 animals in Summit County. The majority of the animals in Cuyahoga and Summit Counties are found at the Cleveland and Akron zoos. In Stark County, the majority of animals are located at an exotic animal rescue facility in Massillon. The remainder of the animals can be found in Geauga, Medina, Portage and Wayne counties.

(c)2014 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)