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Monkey mom

Hairy primate, owner still living happily after 17 years

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AKRON, Ohio -- When Margaret-Gail Ruhl's children moved out of the house, the single mom got lonely.

Cats and dogs provided some companionship, but not enough.

So Ruhl bought a Japanese snow monkey from a dealer. Seventeen years later, she still has Barbara, a 28-pound, hairy primate who lives in a cage outside her Boston Township, Ohio, home.

"She thinks I'm her mom," Ruhl, 67, said as she knelt near the cage and Barbara grabbed her hand. "I'm sorry if that's offensive to some people. But look at how some people feel about their dogs."

Ruhl is one of 153 owners -- not counting accredited zoos and wildlife sanctuaries -- who have registered about 460 animals with the Ohio Department of Agriculture under the new Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act. The Beacon Journal obtained a statewide database listing every owner and animal through a public records request.

Monkeys and big cats are the most popular exotic animals. There are 181 primates. All kinds of primates. Marmosets. Baboons. Lemurs. Chimpanzees. White-faced Capuchins. Black-capped Capuchins.

As for the felines, there are 151, including Siberian tigers, African lions, servals, bobcats and cougars.

There also are plenty of bears, alligators, crocodiles and even two spotted hyenas owned by private citizens, businesses and research groups. In the Akron area, there are 64 animals registered, including 13 tigers and three lions.

The registrations are required under a state law that went into effect in the fall and shines a light on the previously unregulated issue of exotic animal and snake ownership.

The law followed outcry in October 2011 when authorities shot to death nearly 50 tigers, lions, bears, wolves and a baboon after their owner let them loose near Zanesville and then killed himself. The incident garnered national attention and exposed the fact Ohio had no oversight regarding owning exotic animals or dangerous snakes.

The Humane Society of the United States said in the March 2012 report Ohio's Fatal Attractions that Ohio was "one of fewer than 10 states with virtually no regulation of private ownership of dangerous wild animals."

The new law regulates everything from elephants to alligators. It requires private owners to implant a microchip in the animals, have liability insurance and, beginning in 2014, apply for an annual permit. The state also is working on rules overseeing the living conditions of the animals.

Most of the animals live in rural areas. That's not surprising given that many cities and villages bar exotic pets.

Outside of accredited zoos, Cyndi Huntsman of Perry Township in Stark County owns the most exotic animals in the state. Huntsman, who runs the Stump Hill Farm, has 34, including eight Bengal tigers and two Siberian tigers. (She also oversees the Massillon Tigers football mascot, Obie.)

Animal owners aren't happy with the law, said Ruhl, who owns a pony, three cats and chickens, in addition to Barbara the snow monkey. She was so upset, she wrote on her state application she would move out of Ohio before giving up her pet.

"Other than her, I'm all alone," Ruhl said.

She once had two snow monkeys, but the male started attacking her. Ruhl eventually shot the monkey with a rifle, she said through tears.

"The problem here is the law is made up by people who don't want people to have any animals," she said, although she acknowledged some restrictions are needed.

Many of the people who own exotic animals shun publicity. Many declined to comment or even respond when contacted by the Beacon Journal.

One owner, who didn't want to participate in this story, said exotic animal owners can be quirky and like their privacy. He also suspects there are at least twice as many animals in Ohio than are registered.

"We feel there are likely dangerous wild-animal owners that did not register," state agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said. "Owners had a choice to comply with the new regulations, and we know it is unlikely that everyone chose to comply."

Portage County Sheriff David Doak said he knows a couple of wild-animal owners in the county, including a woman with two tigers and a lion. He said he has been to her house and they seem well cared for and appropriately caged.

-- Akron Beacon Journal

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 D5

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