By Erika N. Chen-Walsh
“There is poison in the fang of the serpent, in the mouth of the fly and in the sting of a scorpion; but the wicked man is saturated with it.” ~ Chanakya
May 22, 2012, Ohio’s Senate Bill 310, which went through 16 revisions in the Senate and one, big Omnibus Amendment in the House, passed the Ohio House of Representatives by a vote of 89-9. It was rushed through the Senate regarding the House amendments on the same day and passed by a vote of 30-1. SB 310 awaits only Governor Kasich’s signature before becoming Ohio law. There is no chance of veto.
SB 310 has sweeping implications for all exotic animals. In terms of reptiles, it imposes a prohibitive permitting scheme for all species of venomous snakes and certain constrictors over 12′ in length. It imposes enormous and specific liability insurance or surety bond requirements on owners of venomous snakes, the likes of which are not available. SB 310 requires owners of all restricted snakes to meet certain standards of care that have not been defined and will be set by administrative rule at some later date by group of people unqualified to define best management practices for reptiles. By administrative rule, the director of agriculture can require any information he chooses on the application to own restricted snakes and breeding restricted snakes requires a separate permit. Additional species may be added to the dangerous wild animals list or the list of restricted snakes by either legislative process or a simple concurrent resolution without full legislative process. The impact on reptile hobbyists, owners, breeders and small businesses will be enormous.
How did Ohio go from being one of the few completely unregulated states with respect to exotic reptiles, to one of the most restrictive in less than three months?
The genesis of SB 310 goes back to 2010 and Kasich’s predecessor, Governor Ted Strickland. Strickland was under tremendous
pressure from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to regulate standards of care for Ohio farm animals. HSUS had threatened to file petitions for HSUS’s proposed constitutional amendment on animal care and housing. (FN1.) Strickland, caving to the pressure of HSUS’s threats, made a deal to draft an executive order. In exchange for this agreement, HSUS agreed to drop their ballot initiative for 2010 and committed to instigating no future initiatives for at least ten years. (FN2.)
On January 6, 2011, the deal brokered between Strickland and HSUS resulted in Strickland issuing an emergency executive order banning exotic pets in Ohio. (FN3.) The executive order would have authorized the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife to adopt new rules that prevented new private ownership of wild animals, required existing private owners of dangerous wild animals to register the animals with the state, and defined the type of facilities that could own and rehabilitate dangerous wild animals. The emergency rules would be in place for 90 days. (FN4.)
Four days later, Kasich was sworn in as Ohio’s governor, having defeated Strickland in November 2010 by a narrow margin. (FN5.) By this time, Andrew Wyatt had become aware of the terms of Strickland’s well publicized deal with HSUS. In January 2011, he began contacting Kasich’s office.
By the spring of 2011, Kasich had decided not to sign Strickland’s exotic animal ban because he felt that it exceeded the authority of ODNR and because he felt that it would damage Ohio small businesses. (FN6.) Kasich blocked Strickland’s executive order until its expiry.
Then Zanesville happened. On October 18, 2011, Zanesville, Ohio police began receiving 911 calls of lions, bears, tigers, and other large, dangerous animals wandering loose. The animals, 56 in all, belonged to a man named Terry Thompson, who had kept them on a private game preserve and who chose to turn them loose just prior to killing himself. No humans were harmed by the loosed animals, but unfortunately, the animals were not so lucky. Forty-nine lions, tigers, bears, wolves, mountain lions and a baboon were slaughtered. Most of these were shot and killed by law enforcement officers within 1500 feet of their pens. One was hit by a car. No reptiles were involved in the Zanesville incident.
The public criticism against Kasich from the Zanesville tragedy was swift and condemning. Kasich, of course, refused to accept any culpability, but it turned into an enormous political embarrassment for Kasich, so much so that he sent his friend, Jungle Jack Hanna to the media to defend him. Hanna (television celebrity and Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium), a strong Kasich ally who personally donated $7500 to Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign, made the rounds on national TV claiming it was not Kasich’s fault and further stating that even if Strickland’s original ban had been left in place, there wasn’t anyone to enforce it and no place to put the animals if they had to be taken away. (FN7.)
Politicians achieve their status in life by renegotiating every promise they ever make. The most successful ones make the largest reversals. Kasich may become very successful.
Before Zanesville, Kasich claimed to be protecting Ohio’s small businesses. After Zanesville, he claimed that he blocked Strickland’s executive order because of deficiencies in that order. He became hell bent on passing prohibitive legislation against exotic animal owners as political damage control.
In December 2011, Wyatt met with Senator Troy Balderson, the senator representing the district in which Zanesville lies, and the same senator who sponsored SB 310. Wyatt also met with the director of ODA, the director of ODNR, both of their staffs, and multiple other legislators regarding the inclusion of reptiles (which have never posed a public safety threat in Ohio) in what was already taking form as a huge, restrictive legislative thundercloud for exotic animals and to educate the administration on the impact to Ohio residents and businesses. Other organizations also became interested in and around this time and they, too, began trying to influence the governor.
Senator Balderson made multiple promises to Wyatt during these meetings. Balderson assured Wyatt that only crocodilians and venomous snakes would would fall under his permit system (no constrictors), and that the system would be favorable to industry and it would be “business as usual.” He reversed on those promises.
On March 8, 2012, Balderson introduced SB 310, seeking to enact a sweeping law to establish requirements governing the possession of multiple species of animals, which would be designated as “dangerous wild animals” as well as multiple species of snakes which would be designated under the law as “restricted snakes.” He reversed on his promise to omit constrictors. He reversed on his promise to maintain “business as usual” for the reptile industry. SB 310′s provisions with respect to snakes were so onerous and expensive that they would have served to be a de facto ban on the ownership of multiple species of constrictor snakes as well as venomous snakes.
Rumors in the Statehouse circulated that Balderson, who was not elected but appointed to his senate seat by Kasich, was buckling under the pressure of the governor, who was in a frantic scramble to avoid looking bad over Zanesville. Wyatt made the strategic decision (with which I agreed whole heartedly) to discontinue discussions with Balderson because at best, he lacked the political authority to negotiate, or, at worst, he was negotiating in extremely bad faith.
Wyatt appeared on March 27, 2012 at the first opponents hearing on SB 310 before the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Wyatt gave compelling testimony to a standing room only crowd, amid a sea of NO SB 310 buttons provided by Wyatt, that the reptile industry generates approximately $30 million annually in the state of Ohio; that thousands make their livings or supplement their incomes by farming reptiles as a non-traditional agricultural pursuit; that a rational argument could not be made that working with any reptiles presented public safety risks, and that 90% of the impact of SB310 was directed at the reptile industry, hobbyists and pet owners. He requested that all reptiles be removed from SB 310 and that administrative rule making authority to add new species be removed as well.
Wyatt and I both appeared on April 17th, and on April 24th, each time presenting testimony that not only would SB 310 create a huge burden on Ohio commerce and small businesses, but that reptiles have statistically never posed a public safety risk in Ohio or elsewhere in the U.S.
By April 17th it was clear to us that the Senate intended to listen to virtually unending testimony on SB 310, but had every intention of passing SB 310 out of committee. During that week, Wyatt began executing its strategy to try to ameliorate the damaging provisions of SB 310 in the Ohio House of Representatives. Wyatt felt, and I agreed, that progress in the Senate was futile and further efforts there were going to be fruitless under the circumstances.
Balderson made and reneged on more promises regarding SB 310 during this time period. For example, he promised that administrative rule making authority to add new species would be removed. In fact, he put that promise into writing. But he reneged.
By April 24th, SB 310 was in its 16th version. Some opponents spoke out in favor of the sixteenth version because Balderson removed Boa constrictor , removed constricting snakes less than 12′ long, and allowed surety bonds in certain cases instead of liability insurance for venomous snakes. The inclusion of constrictors, later “bargained” back, was not a victory. Balderson took pains to agree to “concessions” that the legislature could reclaim because of his failure to remove administrative rule as promised. It was a shell game played by Balderson and Kasich against the stakeholders and their representatives who were inexperienced at the carnival.
Wyatt and I began meeting with House representatives on April 24, 2012 and voicing our objections to SB 310. These objections were resoundingly well received in the House and we were assured that the House would not buckle to the whims of a tyrannical governor as the Senate had.
Beginning in April, several aides also intimated to us that somehow, some of the opponents of SB 310 were leveraging it against another pending piece of legislation, Ohio SB 130. In other words, if opposition to SB 310 were quelled, SB 130 might not be scheduled for committee hearing. SB 130 is a puppy mill bill and puppy production in Ohio is a much larger industry that reptile keeping. Another layer of intrigue had been added. Although we could not verify for certain this had happened, we received enough comments from enough offices, that it seemed likely. As of May 23, 2012, SB 130 still has not been scheduled for further committee hearings and the session is about to end. It was assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on February 2, 2012, more than a month before SB 310 was even introduced.
On April 25, 2012, SB 310 passed out of the Ohio Senate on a vote of 30-1 and moved to the House. The same day, Wyatt was on the phone with Chairman David Hall’s office addressing the issue of administrative rule as well as other problematic features that persisted in SB 310. By this time, Wyatt and I already had appointments scheduled for the following week with more than half of the representatives on the House and Natural Resources Committee to discuss SB 310 and had contacted Kasich’s office multiple times regarding meeting with the governor to discuss SB 310. After two weeks of such attempts, Kasich’s aide admitted that Kasich would not meet with us regarding SB 310 and told us that, through her, Kasich made a personal request to the director of agriculture, Director Daniels, to meet with Wyatt and me. Unfortunately, the director’s schedule did not allow that to happen.
By May 1, 2012, we had submitted a proposed substitute bill to Representative David Hall, the Chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. We were in Ohio on May 8th and 9th for continued meetings with legislators in the House, to discuss the particulars of our sub bill (which was distributed to the House Committee on May 8th) and to testify in the House Committee hearings.
Throughout hearings, we continued to hammer home the points that SB 310 represented an unfunded mandate that would fall squarely on the shoulders of Ohio taxpayers, that reptile owners continued to be disproportionately affected, that reptiles posed no safety risk in Ohio, that administrative rule to add new species violated due process rights, that the insurance requirements of SB 310 were impossible to meet because such policies did not exist, and that ideologues and imported animal rights experts were the only proponents, proponents that would drive Ohio residents out of business.
Attendance by committee members at the House committee hearings was outstanding. Members asked pointed and excellent questions and paid close attention to the testimony that was given. On two nights, these public hearings went until approximately midnight. Andrew and I appeared on behalf of the Ohio reptile community, and multitudinous Ohio residents appeared and testified as well, many in the herpetoculture community as well as owners of exotic mammals. At most hearings, opponents outnumbered proponents by more than 20 to one. Proponents were HSUS, PETA, a handful of local zoo representatives (always at least one of Hanna’s cronies from the Columbus Zoo) and imported animal rights advocates from other states.
Early on, Representative Jim Buchy (R) developed a pointed interest in support of our positions and our sub bill. Buchy sent our sub bill to drafting and through him it was proposed to the House committee. Other representatives were also opposed to the Senate version of SB 310 and it was clear to them that Wyatt’s criticisms of specific provisions were accurate.
In our May 8, 2012 meeting with Chairman Hall, he explained to us that when the House received SB 310 from the Senate, the House committee members felt that SB 310 was so problematic that there were not enough votes to pass it out of committee. Hall indicated that he would not call for a vote if they could not pass it. However, if the changes were made in the House necessary to pass SB 310 out of committee, he felt certain that the Senate would not approve it. In that case, the two chambers were required to “conference” the issue, with the governor, which would delay the session.
After May 10, 2012, no further testimony was taken on SB 310. On May 14th, seven committee members caucused SB 310 with Balderson and Kasich. We learned after that caucus that the majority of the House committee was also caving under Kasich’s will. All of the House committee members were up for reelection in November. They were anxious to get back to their districts to campaign. Balderson threatened that substantive changes would not pass in the Senate. Kasich promised that he would veto SB 310 if it arrived on his desk with substantive changes. As a result, the only changes that the House committee proposed in its Omnibus Amendment were those that both Balderson and Kasich had pre-approved.
The Omibus Amendment did not restore legislative process to SB 310. Instead, it allows the director of agriculture to add species to the restricted snakes list or to the dangerous wild animals list (or between those two lists) with approval of the General Assembly. This could be through the introduction of an amendment in the form of a bill. However, it can also be through a concurrent resolution, for which hearings, multiple readings, committees and public input are not required. A concurrent resolution only needs a simple majority vote in each chamber and may occur quite silently. This is not full legislative process.
The insurance provisions in SB 310 are either not obtainable or may be so onerous that the cost will preclude nearly all breeders from meeting the requirements. The standards of care are not defined and administrative rules could impose standards of care that are so impossible as to represent a ban on all permits. Moreover, the director of agriculture can, by administrative rule, define what information and requirements are necessary to keep restricted snakes. SB 310 is a defacto ban on keeping venomous snakes and possibly constrictor snakes over 12′ of certain species.
On May 16, 2012 , SB 310 passed the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee late in the evening by a vote of 17 to 4. The four Representatives who opposed the bill were Buchy, Boose, Damschroder and Hagan.
On May 22, 2012, SB 310 was read on the House floor for its third consideration. Chairman Hall testified that there had been over 15 hours of testimony taken by the House committee, more than 80 witnesses had appeared to give oral testimony and additional written testimony was submitted. He thanked Kasich, Balderson, and Balderson’s legislative aide. He said, “We made the bill stronger,” and, “I feel that we did get it right.”
Representative Terry Boose testified against SB 310. Boose asked more questions in committee than any other representative. He stated that when the House received SB 310, “I was 100% for the bill. I thought it was a good bill before listening to the 80 plus witnesses who testified.” Boose went on to list the litany of problems with SB 310. He said it created a false sense of security. He correctly noted that even if SB 310 passes, it is powerless to prevent another Zanesville, that a person could still own all those animals and still release them. He testified that SB 310 “takes away property rights, not just your neighbor next door, but businesses, valuable businesses in Ohio.”
Boose talked about the $30M to $100M annual revenues generated by the exotic animal business and said that SB 310 will “regulate them out of business.” He testified about the “out of state animal rights groups” that want to impose SB 310 on Ohio. He compared SB 310 to Ohio’s Jarod’s Law (referring to a environmental school safety law in Ohio that went into effect in March of 2006 and was repealed entirely in 2009 because the extraordinary costs of the regulations). (FN8.)
Boose noted that none of the proponents nor the committee had been able to find insurance or surety bonds with the language and terms SB 310 will require. He noted that SB 310 will force this businesses underground. He testified that the bill was devoid of any of the rules that it seeks to enforce. He said, “I cannot vote for this bill.”
Wyatt and I applaud Boose for testifying that, “When we pass laws that people cannot obey, then we destroy the Rule of Law and create a lawless society.”
SB 310 passed in the Ohio House of Representatives by a vote of 89-9. Those that voted against it were: Representatives Boose, Buchy, Conditt, Damschroder, Goodwin, Christina Hagan, Martin, Newbold, and Uecker. It immediately moved to the Senate the same day, where it passed by a vote of 30-1. The sole senator voting against it was Senator Jordan.
This is a sad day for reptile keepers in Ohio. We applaud the Ohio legislators that held to their promises and had the courage, the integrity and the intelligence to stand up for Ohio businesses and commerce in light of the pressure and hysteria of the ideologues to which Kasich and Balderson succumbed.