‘Stubborn’ exotic animal owner still grappling with stateWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Kenny Hetrick has cared for large exotic animals at his Tiger Ridge Exotics compound near Stony Ridge for 40 years, and not once has one of his animals escaped or harmed someone, he said during a recent interview.
Hetrick prides himself on his safety record, but the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) sees it differently.
The ODA recently inspected Hetrick’s property after sending him a letter giving him 10 days to either comply with a state regulation to obtain a permit or hand over his animals.
Hetrick was in violation of a state law passed in 2012 that regulates the exotic animal industry. The law was signed after a 2011 incident near Zanesville in which dozens of exotic animals were shot and killed by law enforcement after being released by their owner.
The letter to Hetrick set off a flurry of news articles, a Facebook page in support of saving Hetrick’s animals and action by the ODA to get Hetrick into compliance.
However, at least two exotic animal experts have accused Hetrick of dragging his feet and not accepting help when it was offered. They called him “stubborn,” a man who loves his animals, but who can’t care for them anymore. Hetrick refutes that.
Hetrick has had two years to come into compliance with the law, but he said the permit process is expensive, and he’s “not a millionaire.”
But thanks to donations by several hundred of Hetrick’s friends, he was able to submit the permit application with the $1,000 fee. He also made upgrades to his compound as required by state regulators, which included new fencing, spaying or neutering and microchipping the animals and paying a $500,000 insurance fee.
“Everything they required, I did,” Hetrick said. “So what’s next? What’s next, I have no clue.”
The ODA remains tight-lipped about its findings at Tiger Ridge. Erica Hawkins, ODA communications director, would not comment on the inspection results or whether Hetrick would be approved or denied a permit.
“We don’t have a final report yet from the [inspection],” she said Dec. 3. “We’re reviewing the legal status of Mr. Hetrick’s animal permit.”
Hetrick calls Tiger Ridge a safe haven for his animals, many of which he’s had for 40 years. The compound at 5359 Fremont Pike in Perrysburg houses six tigers and a black leopard, which are considered endangered animals, as well as two lions, a Kodiak brown bear, a liger, a bobcat and a wolf hybrid.
Andrew Schuman, a Bowling Green attorney representing Hetrick, said his client has been licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for “years and years” (since 1987, according to Hetrick) and has always been in compliance. However, there are no federal regulations for exotic animals.
The state law was considered necessary in response to the release of dozens of bears, big cats, wolves and primates by their owner, Terry Thompson, near Zanesville in 2011. Thompson committed suicide afterward. Most of those animals were killed by law enforcement.
The new legislation, S.B. 310, made it illegal to buy, sell or trade exotic animals and to own many of them. Those who possessed the animals before Jan. 1, 2014, are allowed to get a permit to keep them.
Tiger Ridge is not exempt from the law because it is not an accredited sanctuary with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
So far, the ODA has issued permits to more than 60 owners.
Hawkins said the ODA’s demands for compliance are basic requirements, nothing a responsible animal owner wouldn’t want for his or her compound.
Tim Harrison of Outreach for Animals is a former police officer and former owner of exotic animals who now trains first responders in how to handle them. He said he offered to donate fencing to Hetrick when he was having difficulties finding the money to upgrade his facility. But Hetrick said no, Harrison said, leading him to believe Hetrick was just a stubborn person, not interested in doing what was right for the animals.
“We have been trying to help him for years,” said Harrison, who operates out of Dayton.
Bobbi Brink with Lions, Tigers & Bears, an animal rescue and sanctuary in California, said she also ran up against Hetrick’s alleged stubbornness when she offered to take his animals for him when he ran afoul of the new law. She said Hetrick flat out refused, saying, “If I can’t have my animals, then no one can have them.”
“I believe the state is going to take action,” Brink said. “In all honesty, for us here, we’re going to be dealing with him now or later. With private owners, they don’t want to give up, but they run out of food, cages break down, so they finally figure out they can’t provide for the animals.”
Hetrick denied those claims, and said he has plenty of friends who helped him out of his jam. Hetrick has said he only wants to care for the animals, most of which are old, until they die. He is not rescuing any new animals.
“Most people who do what I do don’t let people on their property,” Hetrick said. “I’ve always been open (to the public) since day one. Never a day goes by that someone’s not here. There’s nothing to hide. I don’t advertise, and there’s no fee. I have a donation box. I don’t make a penny. This is what I like, this is what I do.
“I’m not real sure what they’re (ODA) going to come up with, but whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do it, and I have 1,200 friends who will help me. They’ve been helping me all along.”