PERRY TOWNSHIP, Ohio-- The Ohio Department of Agriculture is appealing a ruling by Stark County Judge Frank Forchione that orders the return of 10 exotic animals that were confiscated from a farm last week.
Agents with the Ohio Department of Agriculture along with local authorities raided Stump Hill Farm seizing five tigers, two baboons, two pumas and a chimpanzee.
The department said the seizure was in compliance with a law passed in 2012 that prohibits ownership of dangerous exotic animals unless the owner meets certain exemptions. One of those exemptions is accreditation by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA).
Stump Hill owner Cyndi Huntsman said she has been working very hard to earn that accreditation and has been open with state authorities throughout the process, even having them at the farm to see what she has been doing.
"I showed them my records where we had rebuilt. We were tearing down. We were expanding and they said fine," Huntsman said.
Showing FOX 8 News the property for the first time since they were confiscated, Huntsman said she doesn't understand why the animals were taken.
"Because they said I was not meeting the criteria of the new state law in their eyes, and in my personal opinion, I wasn't working fast enough for them," Huntsman said.
"I feel dead right now. I don't hear the lions chuffing or the tigers chuffing. I don't hear the cougars screaming. That's their natural way of communicating. I don't hear Tuti (the chimpanzee) calling me," Huntsman told FOX 8.
The agency confiscated the animals with a warrant signed by Judge Forchione, who has since stated in a hearing that he was unaware that Huntsman and her attorney had been taking measures to comply when he signed the warrant.
Forchione has since given the state Department of Agriculture until May 19 to return the animals. He returned a phone call to Fox 8 News on Thursday, but said he could not comment on a case that is still in litigation.
The Department of Agriculture is arguing in the Ohio Supreme Court that Forchione does not have authority to make such a ruling.
Huntsman said the animals have called Stump Hill their home for decades and she worries about them, particularly the chimpanzee, which she has nurtured for 20 years.
"He'll hand you his cup, if he wants something to drink. He'll hand you his spoon, if he wants something to eat. Those are all things that they didn't bother to ask. They didn't bother to ask when they took the tigers if they have they just been feed or the baboons, did they eat yet? Because when you tranquilize an animal they are not supposed to eat for 10 to 12 hours prior to rationalization. They had all just ate breakfast when they came in and tranquilized," Huntsman said.
FOX 8 News confirmed from the Department of Agriculture that Tuti was examined briefly after he was seized and then was immediately sent to a sanctuary outside of the state of Ohio.
Erica Hawkins with the Department of Agriculture said the agency decided to seize the animals after getting a letter from Huntsman's attorney saying that she had been denied membership to the ZAA. Hawkins said that is a first step in the process of accreditation.
She said Huntsman still is the legal owner of the animals and can continue to seek accreditation, but under the exotic animal law she cannot possess the animals.
The state has asked the supreme court to rule on their appeal by next Wednesday, a day before the deadline set by Judge Forchione for the animals to be returned.