Ohio officials are ramping up their efforts to connect with animal owners who now have to register their dangerous, wild creatures with the state.
Only one person has registered since the law took effect on Sept. 5, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Three others tried, but turned in incomplete forms. Their animals also didn't have a required microchip with identification implanted in them.
The state doesn't know exactly how many people possess such creatures, and that's part of its challenge. Without a database or any required licenses, "there's just no way of having some kind of direct mailing list of who owns these kinds of animals," said Erica Pitchford, a spokeswoman for the agriculture department.
Ohio's restrictions on exotic pets had been among the nation's weakest. Efforts to regulate dangerous wildlife took on new urgency last fall, when a suicidal owner released dozens of exotic animals, including black bears, lions and Bengal tigers.
"One of the biggest shocks that came of out last year was this idea that we don't really know how many kinds of these animals are in our state," Pitchford said. "We don't know where they are. People don't know that they could be right down their street."
The law now allows the state to gather that information and gives local law enforcement access to the database.
Owners must register the animals with the state's agriculture department by Nov. 5. They have to say where the creatures are, how many they have, what the animals look like, and who their veterinarian is, among other details.
State officials plan try to enlist veterinarians and an animal owners' group to spread the word about registering, Pitchford said. And the agriculture department has one employee dedicated to handling calls from owners who have questions about the new law and how to register.
"We're trying to be as broad and outreaching as possible," Pitchford said.
Working with the Ohio Association of Animal Owners might not be easy.
The group had tried to get the new law scrapped as it was being debated by lawmakers, arguing it was unfair to owners.
The association boasts more than 8,000 members, whose pets range from domestic cats to Bengal tigers.
Polly Britton, a lobbyist for the association, said it has made its members aware of the November deadline. But the group still is considering a legal challenge to the law, she said in an email on Friday.
The law bans people from buying new dangerous exotic animals, such as cheetahs and crocodiles. Current owners can keep their creatures by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014. But they would have to pass a background check, pay permit fees, obtain liability insurance and show inspectors that they can properly contain the animal and adhere to other standards.
Ohio officials could seize the animals if owners don't meet the state's requirements or are found housing an animal without a permit.
If owners don't register their animals over the next two months, it's likely the state could reject their permit application to keep the creatures.
Failing to register the animals is a misdemeanor, and civil penalties also could be levied. If the state finds the non-registered animals are a public safety issue, it can work with local authorities to remove them.
"The law requires registration of these animals," Pitchford said. "It's not voluntary."