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Indiana Is Home To A Variety Of Animal Exhibitors And Rescue Centers

Lion

A lion rests in an enclosure at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Clay County. (Adam Pinsker, WFIU/WTIU News)

Nestled among the woods deep in Clay County lies a haven for abandoned tigers, lions and other felines.

“I’m never bored, I have an interesting job, even if it is 24-7,” says Joe Taft Executive Director of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.

Taft says he took in his first big cat in 1991, and now has 150 of them.

“They’re not hard to find actually, especially a few years ago you could find these animals on the Internet for 500 to 1,000 dollars.”

Taft says the online illegal pet trade has tapered off a bit, now most of his animals come from defunct zoos or animal shows.

Joe’s facility is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an “exhibitor, visitors are allowed to look but not touch these animals, and with good reason.

“They have the ability to kill you without being aggressive, just the swipe of a paw,” Taft says. 

Taft’s permit allows him to house any kind of cat, or bear, His licensing fee is based on the number of animals he has on his property.

Each year the USDA inspects his facility, as long as he doesn’t have any violations and he pays his annual fee the agency renews his permit for another year.

The rescue center is also subject to a routine inspection at least once a year according to USDA policy.

According to the USDA’s website, permit holders with repeated violations could have their permit suspended and/or face a fine of up to $10,000.

East of the Feline Rescue Center, in Brown County, Kathleen Bowen is working through the process of opening a similar facility in Belmont along Highway 46.

Her project called Zoo’Opolis is permitted the same even though she won’t have any exotic cats.

She wants to do is move a petting zoo she currently operates in neighboring Bartholomew County to property she owns in Brown County.

But at a contentious zoning meeting about the center May 28th, dozens of residents showed up to voice their opposition to Owen’s plan.

“I have actually armed my daughter with bear mace because I don’t want that wolf to get her,” says resident Sandy Aldridge.

Aldridge is talking about an incident from April where a wolf at Bowen’s Columbus facility bit a small child.

Owen calls it an isolated incident.

“I’ve had 20,00 people come since I started in 2015, for general exercise if this room would like to, take 20,000 people, have them go jogging, do aerobics, you would have 106 injuries,” Aldridge says.

No charges were filed against Owen or Zoo’Opolis.

Those who personally want to own and animal without operating a business or sanctuary, need a permit through the state, not the USDA.

“It’s pretty strict for any of the dangerous animals in particular, the other animals we don’t consider as dangerous there are still housing requirements,” says Department of Natural Resources Spokesperson Linnea Petercheff.

Petercheff says the agency will inspect a potential permit holder’s home to make sure it has adequate housing for the animal, and the proper fencing to keep it inside.

DNR says the permits are per animal, not person and there are 442 of them currently statewide.

More than 100 are class three permits, the most dangerous animals. 84 of them are for venomous reptiles. 

The rest of the permits are for less dangerous class two and class one animal permits like foxes and beavers.

Those are the types of animals Kelly Thomas has on her farm in Avon, West of Indianapolis. 

Thomas’s organization, A Critter’s Chance, takes in animals that people no longer want or cannot care for.

She says the state needs stricter laws and animal control officials need to do a better job of educating the public about exotic animals.

“If the public knows that there are that many exotic animals out there that are being mistreated and abandoned, it might not happen as much,” Thomas says.

The DNR says any changes to Indiana’s exotic animal laws would have to originate in the state legislature.

“Basically the state legislature set forth a law a number of years ago, requiring DNR to permit certain animals, but they exempted them from having the federal permit,” Petercheff says.

Former Ohio Governor John Kasich signed strict exotic animal regulations in law after a man released several wild animals from his farm in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011.

Taft says the state doesn’t need additional regulations, it just needs to enforce the laws already on the books.

“I think there are a lot of bad situations that wouldn’t happen if there was both a state and federal permit.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Owen County as the location for the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. The center is in Clay County. 

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