State, judge dispute who can order Ohio exotic animals moved

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A judge who enabled the seizure of five tigers and five other exotic animals from a northeast Ohio farm and later ordered their return is now in a legal fight with the state about who has jurisdiction over 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 had failed to reveal relevant facts about owner Cyndi Huntsman’s cooperation with a quarantine order, her pending administrative appeal and an upcoming hearing. He also concluded 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. 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 and thus be exempt from the permit requirements, but took action to remove the animals after those attempts stalled and it appeared Huntsman had 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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