About Me

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I am a consultant and general counsel to International Ride Training LLC as well as a practicing attorney in Avon, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

After Zanesville: A Plea For Legislative Reason And Deliberation Instead Of Reflexive Reaction

A result of exotic animal ownership or an irresponsible owner?
Now that the threat caused by yesterday's mass release of dozens of wild exotic animals onto the streets of Zanesville, Ohio has ended, unfortunately bringing with it the tragic (but necessary) shooting deaths of most of the animals in the name of public safety, we are already hearing the reflexive cries for legislation banning exotic animal ownership outright in Ohio as well as in other states where regulation of exotic animals is lax or, in some cases, nonexistent.  Heck, even Ted Nugent has waded into the issue.  While I don't think that regulation of exotic animals is a bad thing in concept, I fear that, as is almost always the case when bad things happen, the loudest voices and most unreasonable minds will charge fearlessly toward the most restrictive regulation possible in an effort to placate the masses and achieve political favor as "the person who did something" for his constituents.  Too often, though, this kind of reactionary legislation, while looking good in the moment, reveals itself over time to be ill-suited to solving the real problem at issue.  This is a plea, therefore, to state legislators, in Ohio and elsewhere, already working on an immediate legislative remedy, to stop drafting the law now, take the time to examine this incident and others like it, understand the underlying issues, listen to the experts, and then, AND ONLY THEN, draft meaningful regulation that addresses the problem effectively. 

The problem with legislators, especially on the state and local level, is that they frequently are slaves to the drama of the moment.  Too often, they act first and think later - usually when unintended consequences, that could have been avoided with simple deliberation and study, occur.  I fear that this is where Ohio is headed as we no doubt approach a legislative session where bills will be debated in an effort to turn Ohio from (reportedly) one of the most lax states in the country when it comes to animal regulation to the strictest.  The success of this regulation, however, will depend upon the willingness and ability of regulators to study the issue and craft a law that addresses the underlying cause of the problem - not the resulting tragedy that brought unwanted notoriety to Zanesville, Ohio.

I've seen this kind of thing play out to nearly disastrous consequences before.  As a resident of Connecticut, I followed the case of Charla Nash, and the subsequent reaction of the Connecticut General Assembly, very closely.  For those of you who don't remember, Charla Nash was a resident of Stamford, Connecticut whose neighbor owned a chimpanzee that viciously attacked her in 2009.  Ms. Nash's injuries were unfathomable to us all, her hands ripped off and her face torn from her skull.  She was left horrifically disfigured and was hospitalized for months. The legislature, facing an outcry from its constituency, acted quickly to draft legislation to ban exotic animals entirely in the state of Connecticut.  And, while no doubt good intentioned, the General Assembly really made a mess of it.

In an effort to push this legislation quickly through the General Assembly, it was not drafted as a stand-alone bill, but rather added as an amendment to a bill already making its way through the legislative process.  That bill banned the practice of "internet hunting," i.e. shooting animals from the comfort of your home office using a mouse connected to a gun located on a game reserve somewhere in the world.  Of course, the exotic animal bill was more than a mere amendment.  Once added, it dwarfed the internet hunting portion of the bill in both word count and public importance.  It fundamentally changed the entire point of the originally proposed statute.  The bill became an exotic animal bill with a provision about internet hunting, rather than the opposite.  However, the legislative advantage to this approach was that, because the internet hunting bill had already been subject to a public hearing long before the exotic animal provisions were attached, no further hearings were necessary under Connecticut's rules of legislative procedure.  The legislators were free to write into this new law anything they wanted, and the public (many of whom would undoubtedly have brought much needed expertise to the issue) never had any input.

Consequently, the bill that found itself making its way through the General Assembly to a vote in the final days of the 2009 legislative session was so overbroad as to be ridiculous:
  • It banned exotic animals from being transported through the state temporarily - regardless of who transported them and for what purposes.  Circuses would not have been able to cross through Connecticut on their way to other New England states, much less stop to perform here, without committing a criminal act.
  • It had no due process provisions for those individuals who owned exotic animals prior to the new law's enactment.  Instead, under one proposed version, current owners would simply be divested of their property without thought to the serious Constitutional issues this would raise.
  • It initially lacked sufficient exemptions for non-profit museums and research institutions that kept exotic animals for legitimate purposes, even if not part of a zoological park.  Likewise, amusement parks, carnivals and fairs featuring animal shows and petting zoos generally would have not been exempt.
  • The scope of the ban itself was unbelievable.  Sure, it banned lions, tigers, and bears, but also, depending on your interpretation, may have reached common house cats as well.
As of the last day of the legislative session of 2009, many if not most of these provisions were still in place.  Luckily, literally in the final hours of the session, reasonable minds prevailed to pass a bill that regulated, but did not ban, exotic animal ownership in Connecticut.  Connecticut avoided the embarrassing and costly legal consequences of a hastily drafted and ill-considered law only through the tenacious efforts of a few good people, some of whom were working on behalf of the amusement and carnival industry, who managed to convince lawmakers to listen to reason at the very last second.  We simply can't count on this to happen again - especially given the scope of the event that just occurred in Zanesville.

So, lawmakers, if you really want to do what's best for the people you represent, think about and understand the problem before you try to solve it.  Is the problem exotic animal ownership or is the problem exotic animal ownership by people unqualified or unable to properly care for them while reasonably protecting themselves and the public?  Think about it:  it wasn't the ownership of wild animals that caused the problem in Zanesville or Stamford, it was the people who owned the animals that did.  In Stamford, the chimp, who had previously shown propensity for violent behavior, should never have been permitted by its owner to freely engage with neighbors and the public.  In Zanesville, the animals would not have escaped had their owner not released them just before taking his own life.  Do we effectively solve the problem of bad people putting wild animals in bad situations by simply banning everyone from owning such an animal?  I don't think so.  After all, a zookeeper that doesn't own exotic animals could just as easily release zoo animals into the public if he was mentally unfit to be caring for them in the first place.   

I think the real solution to this problem is not in regulation of ownership, but in regulation of owners.  Consider whether there should be mandatory education or demonstrated proficiency standards for exotic animal owners and for those working with, if not owning, exotic animals.  Maybe there should be zoning restrictions on the housing of exotic animals.  Perhaps mandatory minimum levels of enclosure security, and proof of minimum levels of liability insurance.  All of this would make it harder for unqualified owners to endanger themselves, the public, and the animals through irresponsible ownership, while allowing qualified and responsible individuals to continue to own their animals, albeit under tighter regulatory oversight.  Is this harder to tackle legislatively than simply blindly adopting a blanket ban on ownership?  Absolutely, but it is also likely to be more effective in solving the real problem while safeguarding the public from potentially deadly animal encounters.  To get there though, legislators must resist the lure of the headlines and political accolades that come with being "the person that did something" and instead be strong and wise enough to be "the person that did something right."

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