The lion freed from her cage and found in a neighbor’s front yard in a Buckeye Lake neighborhood last weekend was the first documented escape since Ohio’s new law regulating exotic-animal ownership took effect last year.
That’s one too many, say some residents of the Fairfield Beach neighborhood in Walnut Township in Fairfield County.
“I think it’s the dumbest thing ever,” said Kelly Bryant, 33. “I don’t think residential areas are conducive to having lions or any kind of wild animals.”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has not documented any other cases of exotic animals loose since the law took effect, said spokeswoman Erica Hawkins. Nor have officials cited anyone for any violations of the law, which regulates the ownership of dangerous, wild animals. The state dealt with a handful of alligator owners who did not register their pets as required. Rather than pursue charges, officials allowed them to surrender their alligators to the state, Hawkins said.
The Fairfield Beach lion is among 361 exotic animals owned by 142 people statewide that have been registered since the law took effect, Hawkins said. There might be other exotic animals whose owners should have registered them and didn’t, but there is no way of knowing how many, she said.
The Department of Agriculture is in charge of enforcing the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act. The law prohibits private owners from acquiring, selling and breeding restricted species in Ohio as of Jan. 1, including lions, tigers, bears and other animals.
Agriculture officials and Fairfield County Sheriff Dave Phalen are investigating last weekend’s escape. Someone apparently broke the cage locks and left cooked ribs and chicken giblets to lure the animal out. A neighbor found the lion in his yard about 7 a.m. last Sunday and called the sheriff’s office.
Within about a half-hour, six deputies and a state wildlife officer swarmed the quiet neighborhood. The county emergency-management director and a state agriculture official were alerted by phone. A deputy and the wildlife officer visited the home of the lion’s owners to get their help.
On her own, the lion padded back up the street and stopped in front of the house where she lives. Her owner, John Moore, clipped a leash to her collar and walked her back to her cage.
Fairfield County’s response demonstrated a plan for handling dangerous wild animals that each county is required to follow under Ohio’s new law. The law requires counties to designate teams and follow protocols in responding to loose exotic animals. Counties are drafting their plans now and must submit them to the state for approval by Feb. 28.
“It worked out real well. Everyone did their job, and nobody got injured,” said Lt. Tim Voris.
It helped that the lion stayed calm and that it was early on a Sunday when the neighborhood was still slumbering, its streets not yet filled with joggers and children on bikes, Phalen said.
The lion is registered to Tessa Compton, who shares a rental home with Moore on Queen Road. The 2-year-old, 400-pound lion named Nadia is microchipped, as the law requires.
Moore, 50, is a former caretaker of Terry Thompson’s Zanesville-area farm. Thompson released 50 wild animals from their cages and then committed suicide on Oct. 18, 2011. Forty-eight were killed by law-enforcement officers to protect the public, and two were presumed eaten by larger animals.
The legislature created the exotic-animal law in response.
The notoriety prompted the couple to register the lion with the state in Compton’s name. “I was afraid that, with him being the ex-caretaker, it would throw up a red flag,” Compton, 36, said last week.
The couple bought Nadia and her sister as newborn cubs at an animal auction, she said. The other lion has died. Nadia, kept inside her locked cage on the back patio, is considered as much a part of their home as Compton’s teenage daughter, two house cats and a dog, Compton said.
They have reinforced the locks on the cage and plan to install security lights, build a perimeter fence and obtain $200,000 in liability insurance. Perimeter fencing and insurance are among the law’s permanent rules that take effect on Jan. 1.
Eventually, the couple plans to pack up Nadia and move to a rural property with no close neighbors. “We’d rather be in the middle of nowhere just for her safety,” Compton said.
The move likely will be fine with some of the neighbors in Fairfield Beach.
“They are very nice people,” said Beverly Purdy, 57, who lives across the street, “but I just don’t know about lions.”