COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal appeals court upheld Ohio's restrictions on exotic animals on Tuesday, rejecting a challenge by owners who had claimed the law was too stringent and forced them to join organizations they disagree with.
Seven owners had sued the state over the regulations, arguing that the law violates their free speech and free association rights.
The owners "believe that private exotic animal ownership, free from government intrusion, should be lawful," an attorney for them wrote in a court brief in August.
But in its ruling, the three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said that the owners' constitutional claims lacked merit.
"The burden of regulation may, unfortunately, fall heavier on some than on others, but that, without more, is not enough to render this act unconstitutional," Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote in the panel's opinion.
Robert Owens, the owners' attorney, said they may ask the full appeals court to review the case.
Ohio has defended the law as addressing animal welfare, public health and public safety concerns associated with private ownership of dangerous wild animals.
State lawmakers worked to strengthen Ohio's regulations after a suicidal owner released dozens of creatures from a farm in Zanesville in 2011. Authorities killed most of the animals, which included black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions, fearing for the public's safety.
A spokeswoman for Ohio's Department of Agriculture said it was pleased with the ruling.
"We hope this question has now been firmly laid to rest and that the state can move forward with continuing our enforcement of these safety and care regulation for dangerous wild animals," spokesman Erica Hawkins said in an emailed statement.
The law required owners to get a new state-issued permit by Jan. 1 of this year. They must pass background checks, pay fees, obtain liability insurance or surety bonds and show they can properly contain and care for the animal. Otherwise, residents are banned from having the wild creatures.
The law exempts sanctuaries, research institutions and facilities accredited by some national zoo groups, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.
The owners contend that joining such groups to get an exemption from the law means they would have to associate and fund organizations with which they disagree.
The court said that the owners' unwillingness to meet permit requirements or seek exemptions under the law does not mean that the measure compels them to join certain groups. "The act imposes a choice on appellants, even though it is not a choice they welcome."
Owens said Tuesday his clients have pointed out that "these are all sham options."
The owners also challenged the state's requirement that animals be implanted with a microchip, calling it government intrusion on their property.
The state likened the requirements to installing license plates on cars, exit signs in buildings or fences in yards. And the federal appeals court agreed.
"There is little difference between a law requiring a microchip in an animal and a law requiring handrails in apartment buildings," the judges said.
The owners' appeal came after a federal judge in Columbus sided with the state in upholding the law in 2012.