Unusual visitors: Columbus adopts new strategy about allowing exotic animals within the city

Columbus officials are taking a new approach when considering approvals for exotic animals visiting within the city limits after denying a year-long waiver request from a local petting zoo.

Owners of Zoo’Opolis Exotic Petting World approached the Columbus Board of Works earlier this month seeking the waiver that would have allowed the organization’s exotic animals within the city limits for any event this year.

The organization, located at 12696 W. County Road 50S, had requested to bring several animals permitted under city ordinance, and three that were not permitted without a temporary variance, to an event at Columbus Signature Academy, Fodrea campus, on Jan. 18.

The animals that would not be allowed without the temporary variance were a a peach striped skunk, a baby kinkajou and a timber wolf hybrid, said Mary Ferdon, Columbus executive director of administration and community development. A wolf hybrid is a term used to describe an animal that is part wolf and part domestic dog.

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Forty-nine second-grade students at the elementary school were looking forward to seeing and petting animals from Zoo’Opolis, including a ferret, the kinkajou and skunk and the 10-month old wolf hybrid, which seemed to be the focus of most of the concern by city officials.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who chairs board of works meetings, asked if the hybrid would be muzzled. Zoo’Opolis officials said there would not be a muzzle, but the wolf hybrid would be on a leash.

The city has an ordinance that stipulates what type of animals may or may not be brought into the city, an ordinance that was most recently changed when the city debated whether residents would be allowed to have backyard chickens and coops.

The ordinance says a written formal request for a variance for exotic animals must be presented to the city’s Animal Care Services with any recommendation going before the Columbus Board of Works for final approval.

Zoo’Opolis officials had concerns that with the number of appearances requested by people and organizations in Columbus to see their animals, they would be in front of the board nearly every week with multiple requests, Zoo’Opolis owner Kathleen Bowen said.

Although the year-long waiver from Zoo’Opolis was not granted, the Columbus Board of Works allowed a variance with a provision that an animal care officer be present during the event at CSA Fodrea Elementary School, which the Animal Care Commission and Zoo’Opolis both consented to.

Ferdon said in the future, the city will require Zoo’Opolis to meet with the city’s Animal Care Commission and staff, who will go to the petting zoo to make sure that any exotic animals the organization plans to bring into the city are safe. The requests will then go through the Columbus Board of Works as a formality as long as the Animal Care staff members agree to what Zoo’Opolis is proposing, she said.

The petting zoo business, which has been in operation for three years, is already governed by agencies such as the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bowen said.¬†Zoo’Opolis also possesses an exhibitor’s license, she added.

"I don’t mind calling and letting them (the city) know I’m going to be here," Bowen said. "The permit (requirement) ties my hands."

Ferdon said that approval is required whenever there is a request to bring exotic animals in Columbus based on the city’s current ordinance.

"By ordinance, the Columbus Board of Works has to give a temporary waiver each time an exotic animal is brought into city limits," she said. "When the Board of Works members review these decisions, public safety is our primary concern."

Bowen said animals from Zoo’Opolis are harmless, noting that the petting zoo has more than 200 different types of animals available for the public to see.

"I do not believe there’s any danger," Bowen said. "If you meet all the needs of an animal, it has no reason to be mean."

Ferdon said the Columbus Board of Works has been directed to make sure that organizations who want to bring exotic animals into the city must comply with the city ordinance.

"There’s a reason why some of these animals are not allowed in the city," Ferdon said.

If a traveling circus came to Columbus and wanted to show a large cat (such as a lion or tiger) or an exotic animal not allowed under the city’s current ordinance, approval from the city would still be required, she said.

"They still have to have a request in front of the Board of Works and that won’t change," Ferdon said.

Ferdon said the goal in having an organization such as Zoo’Opolis work with the city’s Animal Care Commission and staff is to ensure the public’s safety.

Bowen said she doesn’t have a problem with the city coming to look at animals it plans to bring into Columbus for different events.

"I think that’s very reasonable," Bowen said. "They’re wanting to govern things. It’s just an extra annoyance."

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The city’s current ordinance prohibits all wild animals to be kept, owned, harbored, boarded sold or let for hire within Columbus.

However, the Columbus Board of Works may grant a temporary variance to owners, commercial animal establishments or sponsors who make formal written requests for an exhibition of wild animals to be held within the city limits, according to the ordinance.

Wild animals under Class 2 are defined as any animal or hybrid of any animal that is not a domestic animal or wild animal under Class 1 such as fish, nonpoisonous snake, nonpoisonous reptile, nonpoisonous amphibian, degu, sugar glider, hedgehog and/or birds nor normally kept as cage birds.