By Michael Scott, The Plain Dealer
It’s a bear market in Ohio.
It’s also a raccoon market, a fox market and a bobcat market.
Hundreds of Ohioans own, sell or buy wild animals – from skunks in Cleveland to wolverines in Lodi to bobcats in Parma.
Mostly, the wild things end up in cages in suburban back yards, on big farms or even in back-room apartments, your neighbor’s idea of exotic pets.
Some of those animals can bring profits. Wildlife experts and animal dealers say a market exists in Ohio and across the globe for exotic pets, and for their parts.
Marketable products include meat, pelts, paws for decor, urine for hunters and trappers to mask human scent and even gall bladders, thought by some to have aphrodisiac powers.
“Some people raise ’em to shoot ’em and skin ’em, and others just because they’re crazy and want a large carnivore in their house,” said Jeff Illium, 54, a Medina County exotic- animal lover who once owned 130 different wild beasts. “All sorts of people have wild animals, but not everybody knows they’re there.”
Ohio’s wild menagerie was flushed from cover last week in two incidents.
On May 22, a bear in Ashtabula County broke from its cage and mauled a neighbor in her home. Two days later, a fire in Copley Township killed a black bear cub and two tiger cubs at the home of a wild- animal breeder.
The bear owner, Mark Gutman, whose Grand River Fur Exchange in Hartsgrove Township has 700 other animals, is licensed by the state to breed and sell game and fur-bearing animals indigenous to Ohio.
Copley animal owner Lorenza Pearson, whose son was killed by Pearson’s Bengal tiger in 1983, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, accused of violations of the Animal Welfare Act between 1998 and 2001. A hearing on the suspected violations, which include inadequate housing for animals, is set for next month in Akron.
The Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is investigating Gutman’s operation to determine whether it requires a federal license. Gutman breeds and sells wild animals. The state renewed his license in March.
Gutman and Pearson are but two among hundreds of Ohio’s exotic- animal owners and breeders who try to make money selling the animals as pets or for their fur, organs, urine and meat.
Buyers have varied motivations
Many breeders sell their animals to pet stores. Doug Miller, a law enforcement supervisor with the Ohio pision of Wildlife, said Gutman keeps animals to breed them and sell their urine.
“There’s pretty big money in this,” he said. “They get $200 for a baby raccoon or fox.” State law prohibits taking animals from the wild as pets, so they must be purchased from dealers.
“Some people, rather than a Persian cat, they like a raccoon or a skunk,” said Ron Ollis, who oversees enforcement for the Ohio pision of Wildlife.
Selling furs also can be a big business. Ohio, one of the nation’s top pelt producers, had 72 licensed dealers in 2004-05. They bought more than 159,000 pelts from hunters, trappers and people who raise the animals for profit, according to the pision of Wildlife.
Then, there’s the unusual — and potentially lucrative — trade in bear gall bladders.
Washington state officials arrested a Vancouver man for poaching bears and selling their gall bladders in 1999. Officials said that the price was $400 in North America and more than $25,000 in parts of Asia.
Ohio wildlife administrator Dave Risley and others have heard of the gall bladders being dried, pulverized and used as aphrodisiacs. State officials are not aware of anyone in Ohio raising bears for gall bladders.
Bear bile has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat intestinal, liver and bacterial infections and to dissolve gall stones. A synthetic version is available.
“Bear bladders can help for everything from headaches to hemorrhoids — but not in the bedroom,” said Tony Nette, wildlife resources manager for the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Parts show up on retail shelves
Making money by raising wildlife can be tough. Selling pelts, urine and other byproducts is generally profitable only in volume.
For example, dealers paid an average of $6.28 per raccoon pelt in 2004-05, said Chris Dwyer, a biologist at Ohio’s Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station. Russia, China and Greece are major pelt markets.
Tink’s, a Covington, Ga.-based outdoors store, sells deer urine to hunters to attract deer, and fox urine to mask human scent.
Tink’s buys mostly from small dealers, said Scott Yates, the company president. He would not disclose prices.
But Cabela’s, which bills itself as the world’s foremost sportsman outfitter , sells 4-ounce pump-spray bottles of fox or raccoon urine for $7.99.
Gander Mountain, with stores in Mentor, Sheffield Lake and Twinsburg, sells deer urine, as does Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has nine stores in the Cleveland area.
No other animal part has the mystical hype of the bear gall bladder.
“I knew guys out there who sold bear claws and entire bear paws,” said Ed Speece of Bucyrus, a private owner raising his 10th bear in the last 25 years. People use them as decorations.
White-tailed deer are the most popular game animals kept in Ohio. Some deer owners keep them as pets; others sell the venison to restaurants.
Deer are also sold to private hunting preserves. Affluent outdoorsmen pay more than $10,000 to hunt bucks with large antlers , wildlife officials say.
Last week’s incident in Ashtabula pushed Ohio’s relatively lax laws on ownership of exotic animals, especially bears, to the forefront. Ohio has 57 bear breeders with 130 bears.
Ohio law governs the sale and breeding of species native to the state, such as bears and deer. Any Ohioan can own native wildlife as pets, but raising them them as a hobby requires a permit. People who raise them for profit need a commercial permit.
State wildlife officials have unsuccessfully sought broader authority from the legislators, but they expect another push.
“We would like to strengthen our authority,” Risley said. “We don’t want to put legitimate people out of business. We want to take reasonable measures to protect Ohio’s wildlife and protect Ohio’s citizens.”