Tackling Ohio’s toughest animal-related issues
By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
For more than a decade, faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have spent millions of tax dollars on staging violent fights between animals in their laboratories for cruel aggression experiments, according to a recent news release by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Last month in Connecticut, an 11-year-old male Shih-tzu was found shoved into a storm drain, abandoned after-hours at a local animal shelter. The dog was suffering from malnutrition, severe dehydration and several other issues, and would have died in the drain had it not been discovered by a shelter employee.
And when Water for Elephants was released early this summer, even Hollywood was under fire for the alleged abuse of Tai, the elephant “actor” featured in the movie. Viewer and animal rights activists pointed to video footage that showed the animal being mistreated in relation to the making of the film.
Seem far from home? Think again. The truth is, if you live in Ohio, then you need look no further than outside your back door to discover similar cases of animal abuse and mishandling.
In fact, Ohio is one of the few remaining states in the entire country where cockfighting is not a felony. It’s now home to one of the largest concentrations anywhere of puppy mills and it’s become a well-known trading ground for the exchange of rare exotic animals, like poisonous reptiles and endangered mammals. In a survey by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Buckeye State was ranked 45th out of the nation’s 50 states as a result of its lax or next-to-nothing regulations for protecting animal welfare.
“We felt a particular urgency in Ohio because it was lagging behind other states so badly even though its population is friendly to so many animal welfare issues,” HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said. “We felt the policies were out of sync with the beliefs of Ohio residents.”
Last June, HSUS, Ohioans for Humane Farms, Ohio agriculture leaders and then-Ohio Governor Ted Strickland struck a deal to overhaul major animal welfare in Ohio, including the reform of industry practices and improving prospects for adoption of critical legislation in other areas. The agreement included recommendations from all of the parties for the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, the legislature and the former governor, including ones that would establish felony-level penalties for cockfighting, tighter legislation applied to puppy mills and a ban on the acquisition of dangerous exotic animals as pets, in addition to five issues related to animal welfare on farms.
Progress? You bet. A long way to go? Certainly.
Before exiting office, Strickland enacted a ban on the purchase and private ownership of exotic animals, including primates, alligators, bears and venomous or constricting snakes.
Unfortunately, the effort didn’t last long. After just 90 days of being in effect, current Ohio Governor John Kasich was in office and he chose to leave the agreement unsigned. Pacelle said the governor is looking into the issue with the help of a committee and that the HSUS will be participating in the process of reaching an agreement to regulate wild animal ownership.
But Pacelle said that’s just the beginning of the animal welfare issues that plague Ohio. Another of its largest problems? Cockfighting.
“The cockfighting issue is one that’s very real,” Pacelle said. “If you were to drive into many rural counties in Ohio, then you would find a fair number of people [who own] barrels that have roosters tethered to them. Those are evidence of people who use those animals for cockfighting. We would rate Ohio as one of the top cockfighting states in the country for sure.”
And Pacelle drums up feelings of confusion considering the fact that if someone is caught hosting a cockfight, then the penalty is a simple misdemeanor and a $250 fine — a mere slap on the wrist.
“It’s amazing that lawmakers give these guys the time of the day,” said Pacelle. “What are these guys afraid of and who are they protecting? Dog fighting is a felony in every state — there’s no moral difference between cockfighting and dogfighting.”
Pacelle said similar feelings of distaste are aimed at puppy mills.
“There are no humane breeding standards in Ohio,” he said. “The only way you can shut down a puppy mill in Ohio is if you discover an extreme situation, such as starving animals.”
Pacelle said this issue points again to Ohio as an outlier state, seeing as how most of the states, like Pennsylvania and Iowa, with a large number of commercial breeders do have standards within their laws.
But where, then, does the role of the average Ohio resident come into play?
Amanda Dalton, marketing director at Heaven’s Corner Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit, fully-licensed sanctuary and zoo in Preble County (West Alexandria), said the key behind so many of these issues is a lack of education.
“The best way to help animals is through education and emphasizing responsibility,” Dalton said. “Eliminating animals from the state does both them and people a disservice. Education and enforcement are always on-going areas of concern for any industry.”
But Pacelle said the lack of Ohio laws that regulate or ban wild animals as pets is a problem, adding that where other states have such laws, Ohio has nothing of the sort.
“You can have a lion, chimpanzee, tiger, Burmese python, cobra, venomous snake, bear or big cats [if you live in Ohio],” Pacelle said. “That lack of regulation in Ohio has prompted many of the exotic animal dealers and owners to gravitate to the state.”
Pacelle makes clear that the HSUS does not support private citizens keeping wild animals, like tigers or chimpanzees in their homes as pets.
“There’s no good outcome for these animals,” Pacelle said. “They end up being relinquished, sold to an exotic animal dealer, dumped off onto a sanctuary, let loose or euthanized.”
This lack of animal care certainly goes against what many sanctuaries and zoos work hard to accomplish toward the preservation of animals. Consider, for example, the Wilds in Columbus which works to preserve animals, but ensure their longevity for the long haul.
“This is a business where you have to love what you do,” said Wilds Director of Animal Management Dan Beetem, laughing. “We have a very dedicated staff and we count ourselves lucky to be where we are.”
Beetem’s sentiment, in addition to the efforts of animal care facilities, like the Wilds and Heaven’s Corner, points to what Pacelle suggested earlier: The overarching nature of Ohioans is to want to help the animal population.
Pacelle, who is the author of the recently-released The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, said he wrote the book because of what he believes is the general human drive to protect its creatures.
“I wanted to reframe the debate about our treatment of animals and I wanted to call the American public to a greater level of responsibility in caring for other creatures,” Pacelle said.
And he said the finger for animal treatment is not necessarily being pointed at government agencies, but at consumers and private industry.
“We’re asking them to sync their market choices with their values,” Pacelle said. “We have moral problems all around us in the marketplace — factory farm meat, products that are tested on animals, fur coats or exotic animal skins. We can turn these moral problems into opportunities by making the right choices.”
For Dalton, the right decision lies within an owner’s willingness to dedicate proper time toward caring for his or her animal. In fact, she said most often a dangerous incident between an animal and human is the result of reckless exotic animal ownership.
“Heaven’s Corner Zoo educates the public that when we have conflicts between animals and people, the problem typically is a result of people being irresponsible,” Dalton said. “The reason we want to protect responsible exotic animal ownership is to help continue their species and to put it simply, protect them from other human beings. There are not enough big zoos to care for exotic animals without avoiding problems like inbreeding and the natural death rate.”
Beetem agreed, calling the Wilds’ cooperative breeding programs “insurance policies” against the extinction of a particular breed, like the Przewalski’s Horse (Asian Wild Horse) that exists at the Wilds because of captive breeding programs (the horse is extinct in the wild).
“What we’re trying to do with our typical breeding programs is make sure we have good, healthy populations that can survive into the future,” Beetem said. “We’re not going and taking animals out of the wild; we want the populations that we have here to be self-sustaining.”
And for those Ohio residents who don’t own an exotic animal, but a seemingly “typical” dog, cat or other domestic animal, the same rules apply.
“We have a bond built into every one of us that connects us with animals,” Pacelle said. “It gives us a head start in doing the right thing for a fellow creature.”
This adds truth to the idea that the problem within Ohio is not a lack of humanity, but instead a disorganization of the rules that help to protect its animals’ welfare.
“We live in an incredible moment of contradiction within our society,” Pacelle said. “We have so many manifestations of love and appreciation for animals, yet we’re a culture that can also have so much cruelty occurring on an unimaginable scale. [When I wrote the book,] I wanted to reframe the debate about our treatment of animals and call the American public to a greater level of responsibility in caring for other creatures.”
In the preface of The Bond, Pacelle writes, “We all have our own ideas about how to make the world a better place — that’s a good thing. Some are called to serve the poor, bringing food, shelter, medicine, and opportunity where the need is greatest … And by the millions, men and women in America and beyond have set their hearts and minds to the work of preventing cruelty and alleviating the suffering of animals.”
Surely, that’s a value worth getting behind — starting right here in Ohio.
To learn more about Heaven’s Corner Zoo and Sanctuary visit www.heavenscornerzoo.org. All of the donations the organization receives go toward the food and care of its animals. More information about the Wilds can be found at the www.thewilds.org, and the Human Society of the United States at www.humansociety.org.
Reach Emerson’s owner Caroline Shannon-Karasik