TOLEDO, Ohio – A man whose tigers and other exotic animals were seized in a raid by authorities in Ohio lost what is likely his final court challenge seeking return of the animals to his roadside sanctuary.
The Ohio Supreme Court turned down a request to overturn a lower court’s decision that sided with the state in its three-year legal battle with Kenny Hetrick over the animals.
The state’s agriculture department said the decision issued on Wednesday will allow it to begin handing over permanent ownership of the animals to the sanctuaries where they now are housed.
“They can peacefully live out their lives and the state will no longer be responsible for the cost of their care,” Mark Bruce, a department spokesman said in a statement.
Hetrick’s daughter said her family was shocked and devastated.
“We have fought the best possible fight we could with what we had,” said Corrina Hetrick.
The state hauled away the animals from Hetrick’s sanctuary near Toledo in 2015 and later shipped them outside of Ohio, spending more than $30,000 on temporary care for the tigers, a bear, a leopard and a cougar.
One of the animals, a male lion named Leo, was euthanized by the state, which said he was in failing health and stopped eating.
The state cracked down on exotic animal owners and began requiring beefed up enclosures and more oversight after an eastern Ohio man released dozens of his exotic animals before killing himself in 2011.
Ohio officials took custody of Hetrick’s animals after they said he ignored warnings about needing a permit. Inspectors also reported that his cages were not secure enough to prevent an escape.
His family argued the animals were improperly taken, saying Hetrick was treated differently than other owners who got extra time to complete their applications and get permits without losing their exotic animals.
Hetrick, who drove a pickup truck with “Tiger Man” painted on the side, first began taking in abused and unwanted exotic animals in the mid-1970s. It was not unusual, his daughter said, for someone to show up with a black panther or an alligator.
He became an animal educator, inviting scout troops and families to see the tigers, bears and leopards he housed in a maze of steel cages next to his home.
Neighbors and his friends who had fond memories of visiting the animals raised money for the family’s legal bills and rebuilt the cages with taller fences and netting, hoping the animals would return someday.
“This isn’t just our loss but the community’s loss as well,” Corrina Hetrick said. “This pain will last a lifetime.”