This black bear is one of a group of animals, owned by an Ohio man, that were confiscated from a Jay County property Friday. The United States Department of Agriculture and staff from Wild Animal Sanctuary of Colorado removed the animals with assistance from Jay County Sheriff’s Office. Sanctuary officials said the animals were taken because Sawmiller was not following USDA guidelines for housing them. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
This black bear is one of a group of animals, owned by an Ohio man, that were confiscated from a Jay County property Friday. The United States Department of Agriculture and staff from Wild Animal Sanctuary of Colorado removed the animals with assistance from Jay County Sheriff’s Office. Sanctuary officials said the animals were taken because Sawmiller was not following USDA guidelines for housing them. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)

Seven bears and one cougar.

That’s how many wild animals were confiscated Friday from an Ohio man housing them on a Jay County property.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, staff from Wild Animal Sanctuary of Keenesburg, Colorado, and local officials worked together for about five hours beginning about 10 a.m. Friday to remove a combination of grizzly and black bears, as well as one mountain lion, from the property.

The animals formerly belonged to Ohio native Robert Sawmiller, who leases space to house them at the 4200 N. 150 East property owned by David and Emma Eicher.

Sawmiller’s animals were removed Friday because, according to Wild Animal Sanctuary staff, he was not following the USDA guidelines for housing them. He also owns two other large cats at the premises that were not removed because they were not suffering, said sanctuary founder Pat Craig.

In Indiana, it is legal to own a variety of traditionally wild animals, such as bears and mountain lions, with the correct permit. Ohio, however, has had a law since 2012 that denotes such creatures as “dangerous animals” and prohibits any ownership.

Sanctuary staff worked on the property on the east side of county road 150 West between county roads 400 north and 500 north, coaxing the animals from their enclosures and into cages. They used a forklift to transport the cages down the driveway and to the road, where they were then placed in a large trailer.

Other than temperatures reaching the low teens, Wild Animal Sanctuary CEO Ryan Clements said, the process went smoothly. It did take a while to declutter the area and coax the animals into portable cages, he added.

Clements estimated their enclosures at the Jay County property were 20 feet by 20 feet for three bears. Craig said the animals were living in a space providing little shelter from the cold weather and with no bedding.

“They had given (the owner) opportunities –– like they always do,” Craig explained, noting that the USDA had informed Sawmiller of the necessary changes several times before seizing the animals Friday. His organization has taken ownership of the animals and will be keeping them at his Keenesburg sanctuary about 40 miles northeast of Denver.

With about 10,500 acres of land and more than 600 lions, tigers, bears and wolves, Wild Animal Sanctuary’s three facilities (two in Colorado and one in Texas) represent the world’s largest carnivore sanctuaries.

In total, the organization has about 80 employees and 160 volunteers.

Sheriff Dwane Ford and deputy Brad Wendel joined the group Friday for extra assistance. Ford, a former conservation officer, talked about how the team worked efficiently, and he emphasized the importance of the public following protocols.

“There’s just laws that you have to follow and go by,” he said. “No matter what you’re doing.”

Craig started Wild Animal Sanctuary more than 40 years ago and opened its Keenesburg location to the public about 20 years ago for educational purposes. The organization spays and neuters each incoming creature to avoid reproduction. He and his staff –– such as Clements, who has been there nine years –– have picked up animals from all over the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.

“We just want them to live out the rest of their lives as happy, healthy and natural as they would in the wild,” Clements said. “It’s crazy seeing a grizzly bear you rescued like these guys up on rock cliffs or in valleys, up on trees, and just watching the site. It’s just so much better than what (they) were in.”

The staff made visits to the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park formerly owned by Netflix series star Joe Exotic, also known as the “Tiger King.” Craig said he and his staff have confiscated animals three or four times from the franchise, which was taken over by Jeff Lowe, renamed “Tiger King Park” and moved from Wynnewood to Thackerville, Oklahoma.

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