State, judge dispute who can order Ohio exotic animals moved

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A judge who ordered the return of five tigers and five other exotic animals seized from a northeast Ohio farm is now in a legal fight with the state over who has jurisdiction in such transfers.

In filings with the Ohio Supreme Court, the Department of Agriculture argues it has oversight in those matters, but an attorney for Stark County Judge Frank Forchione contends he acted within his authority in ordering the animals’ return to Stump Hill Farm. It’s still fighting to get them back.

The state seized the tigers, two pumas, two baboons and a chimpanzee May 4, saying owner Cyndi Huntsman hasn’t met Ohio’s tightened restrictions on dangerous wild animals. Forchione granted a warrant that facilitated the seizure, but the next day, after Huntsman’s attorney raised concerns, the judge ordered that the animals be returned to the Massillon farm by May 19.

Forchione concluded that the state failed to disclose relevant facts about Huntsman’s cooperation with a quarantine order, her pending administrative appeal and an upcoming hearing. He also concluded that the animals were well cared for at Stump Hill and that a hearing hadn’t substantiated the state’s claim that returning the animals poses significant risks to public safety and their health.

“In short, there appeared to be no reason for the (department) to seize the animals before the issue could be finally resolved at the August hearing,” Forchione’s attorney, Kevin L’Hommedieu, wrote in a Friday filing with the high court. He also argued that state law governing dangerous wild animals doesn’t give the agriculture director exclusive jurisdiction over transferring them.

The state has stood by its actions, arguing it lawfully moved the animals to a state holding facility east of Columbus. The chimpanzee was quickly moved to an out-of-state rescue facility, which a department spokeswoman has declined to publicly identify. One of the tigers has since given birth to four cubs, and the state says they’re doing well. It’s unclear whether the order for the animals’ return would cover the cubs.

State officials had considered Stump Hill to be the last large facility not complying with the stricter rules Ohio enacted after a suicidal man released lions, tigers and other creatures from a Zanesville-area farm in 2011.

The department worked with Stump Hill on its efforts to get accreditation from the Zoological Association of America so the farm could be exempt from the permit requirements, but took action to remove the animals after accreditation attempts stalled and Huntsman appeared to have improperly acquired more restricted animals, department spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.

Huntsman argues that her farm is a licensed educational facility and thus exempt from permit requirements. Her attorney, John Juergensen, has called the seizure premature and unnecessary.

The matter is before the Ohio Supreme Court because the state asked the court to stop action in the case after the judge ordered the animals’ return.

In his separate filing Friday, Juergensen said the court shouldn’t intervene because the decision was within the county judge’s jurisdiction.


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