STONY RIDGE, Ohio (AP) — The maze of steel cages where bears and black leopards roamed for more than three decades are quiet now. The growls and roars of tigers and lions no longer echo across Kenny Hetrick’s backyard and into his neighbor’s windows.
All of his animals, save for a wolf, have been in the custody of Ohio’s agriculture department since January after it said he ignored warnings that he needed a permit for the exotic animals and that his cages weren’t secure enough to prevent an escape.
Hetrick, who has been taking in abused and unwanted animals since the mid-1970s, is challenging the seizure, backed by neighbors who insist his menagerie doesn’t pose a threat. They have organized car washes and handed him envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars to pay legal bills. Some spent the winter shoring up his cages with taller fences and netting, hoping the animals will return.
“He’s lost without them,” said Josh Large, who lives four houses away. “A lot of us are lost without them.”
Hetrick, 72, allowed anyone to visit at no charge, getting by with help from volunteers and donations of cash, as well as of deer and horse meat to feed his animals.
He thought of himself as an educator, inviting scout troops and families to learn what they wouldn’t hear at zoos — and that’s why so many people are trying to save what he created, unwilling to believe what animal regulators say.
The state hauled away six tigers, a bear, a lion, a cougar, a black leopard and a liger (part lion, part tiger) amid a crackdown on the owners of big cats and wild creatures that came about after a man in eastern Ohio released dozens of exotic animals — including African lions and Bengal tigers — then killed himself.
That day almost four years ago highlighted the state’s lack of regulations on “private zoos” and pushed Ohio to require sturdy cages, background checks and insurance before receiving an annual permit.
Since the beginning of last year, Ohio has issued permits to 54 exotic animal owners. Others gave up their animals or moved them out of state rather than make the changes.
“I know I didn’t have everything done, but I thought they’d work with me,” said Hetrick, who acknowledged before his animals were taken that he couldn’t afford everything the state wanted.
The agriculture department says that it tried, but that he never responded to letters sent over a span of two years with the permit application materials until last October, nine months after the deadline, when it gave him 10 days to surrender his animals.
State officials in January rejected his application for a permit, which includes a $1,000 fee, saying it submitted was too late.
They also said state inspectors who visited the sanctuary outside Toledo last November discovered the tigers could stand on their housing and get dangerously near the top of their cages.
The inspection noted there were unsecured padlocks and chains and not enough fencing around an enclosure holding a tiger and black leopard. “If motivated, it would be very easy for either of those two animals to escape,” said Melissa Simmerman, assistant state veterinarian.
Hetrick, whose pickup truck has “Tiger Man” painted on the side, disputes those assertions.
“Nothing’s ever got loose. Not in almost 40 years,” he said. “Nobody’s ever been bit. Nobody’s been hurt.”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has a duty to protect the public’s safety, spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said. “Just because an animal’s never gotten out, doesn’t mean that an animal couldn’t get out,” she said.
Hetrick is appealing the department’s rejection of his permit application and a hearing is scheduled for next week, but the fight will probably continue in court no matter what a state panel decides.
Until then, the 10 animals — a lion named Leo that had been in failing health was euthanized by the state last week — will remain a two-hour drive away outside Columbus, in a high-security building operated by the state.
Supporters of Hetrick believe the animals — only the wolf wasn’t seized because it doesn’t fall under the exotic animal law — have been mistreated and will not survive long outside their home. State officials insist they are fine.
Hetrick doesn’t have formal training with wild animals, but he has been around them about 60 years, since he was a 10-year-old volunteer cleaning cages at a zoo in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
His love for wild creatures grew when he moved to Ohio. He first brought home an ocelot, often called a dwarf leopard.
“I tell people don’t start with a tiger if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
He and his wife, who died four years ago, spent much of the money he made as an auto worker and police officer on the animals. Even with donations, food alone for the tigers and others cost as much as $15,000 annually in recent years.
Their collection multiplied, often when others dropped off unwanted pets. His daughter, Corrina Hetrick, remembers going out to catch the school bus only to find an alligator swimming in a kiddie pool. There also was the time a black panther showed up in the back of a pickup truck.
“I didn’t have cats and dogs,” she said. “I had bears and tigers.”
Even the circus camped at his two-acre property while traveling between shows. “We had elephants in the backyard and contortionists in the living room,” she said.
Erica Crawford, who has been visiting Hetrick’s animals since she was a little girl and now brings her children, said she appreciates the uniqueness of the place.
“There’s never been a time,” she said, “where I felt like it’s not safe there.”
Associated Press reporter Mike Householder in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, contributed to this report.