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Ohio moves big cats, tigers seized from owner to 3 sanctuaries in other states

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TOLEDO, Ohio — Six tigers and four other exotic animals seized by Ohio officials from their owner in January have been moved from a temporary holding facility to animal sanctuaries in three other states, the Ohio Department of Agriculture said Tuesday.

The move began late last week and the final two animals arrived Tuesday at a facility in Arizona, department spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.

The department took custody of the animals from a small, roadside animal sanctuary near Toledo after it said the owner, Kenny Hetrick, ignored warnings that he needed a permit for the exotic animals and that his cages weren't secure enough to prevent an escape.

The tigers, bear, leopard, cougar and a liger (part lion, part tiger) spent the last seven months at the holding facility operated by the state near Columbus while their owner continued to fight the state's authority to seize the animals.

State officials have said from the beginning that the facility was not meant to house the animals long-term.

"They're doing really well, so it was an ideal time to transport them," Hawkins told The Associated Press. "They needed more space, and we realized that."

Veterinarians who saw the animals also recommended the move, she said.

Hetrick said he wasn't notified about the animals' relocation beforehand and believed the state was prohibited from taking such action while his legal matters are pending. He said Tuesday that he planned to talk with his attorney about pursuing the creatures' return.

"I want the animals back in Ohio," he said. "They're not allowed to leave the state with them."

His daughter, Corrina Hetrick, said in a separate telephone interview that the animals were fine at the holding facility in Ohio and that separating and moving them was cruel. Until January, they had lived at the sanctuary since they were young, and some of them are now old — the liger is 23 — she said. The move undoubtedly was stressful to them, she added.

"We're absolutely disgusted," she said.

The animals now are at sanctuaries in Tampa, Florida; Spearfish, South Dakota; and Valentine, Arizona, where they will remain until Kenny Hetrick's court challenges against the state are resolved, the state said. The Department of Agriculture said in a court filing that caretakers at the sanctuaries are under contract but it retains custody of the animals.

Because the legal proceedings could continue for months or more than a year, the state decided it could not wait for the move.

"We've gotten good feedback from the sanctuaries that they're enjoying the open space," Hawkins said. "It's definitely a better situation for them."

The department oversees permitting for dangerous wild animals under state regulations enacted after a suicidal man in eastern Ohio released dozens of his animals, including African lions and Bengal tigers, on his farm in 2011 and authorities had to kill them, fearing for public safety.

Hetrick, who had taken in abused and unwanted animals since the mid-1970s, sought to keep his seized creatures at his property under a wildlife shelter permit and a dangerous wild animal rescue facility permit, but the department denied both requests after administrative hearings.

The director's orders said Hetrick submitted an incomplete application after the deadline, didn't microchip all his animals as mandated and had facilities that didn't meet legal requirements.

Hetrick has argued that the state worked with other exotic-animal owners on compliance issues and that he was treated differently. He said he made improvements at the facility and tried unsuccessfully, with witnesses, to get help from the department in the permit process.

Hetrick appealed the department's administrative rulings Aug. 20, a week after a Wood County court denied an emergency motion seeking the return of the animals and put the case on hold pending administrative proceedings.

Despite any changes Hetrick has made to his facility, the animals could not be returned to him, Hawkins said. "The deadline has passed, and the law will not allow us to give him a wildlife permit," she said.


Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.

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