CHARLESTON (AP) - State officials want to ensure West Virginians aren't making pets out of animals better suited for the wilderness than people's backyards.
After an Ohio man in 2011 let dozens of dangerous animals loose, including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers, West Virginia has decided to determine which tigers, apes, alligators and other wildlife will be illegal for people to own. State regulators are shooting for early July to finish the list.
The law passed this year only clamps down on new animals brought into West Virginia.
Residents who already have soon-to-be-illegal creatures won't violate new state laws, as long as they follow a new permitting process, said Paul Johansen, state Division of Natural Resources assistant chief of game management.
The law also calls for an inventory of sorts, since officials don't know what's prowling around the state.
"We have literally no idea what's out there, in terms of exotic wildlife being held in private possession," Johansen said.
A variety of accredited groups, like zoos, animal control, veterinarians, dealers and exhibitors, are exempted. So are animals safely transported through the state in two days or less.
In 2011, a Zanesville man released 50 exotic and potentially dangerous animals from his farm before he committed suicide.
Fearing for the public's safety, authorities killed 48 of the animals.
Two surviving leopards, two primates and a bear were temporarily held at the Columbus Zoo and returned to the man's wife in May 2012. She transferred them to another Ohio farm.
Tramplings and maulings aren't the only concerns for West Virginia regulators. Agriculture, natural resources and health officials also worry that animals can import diseases or threaten ecosystems.
West Virginians who violate the law could face misdemeanor charges and fines of $200 to $2,000 per animal.
Releasing a dangerous animal could earn to a year in jail and $500 to $2,500 in fines.
If the animal hurts someone, penalties reach the felony level, with a possible one to three years in state prison and $1,000 to $5,000 in fines.
Johansen said some forbidden animals will be no-brainers - lions, tigers and the like. Others may draw more backlash, like some snakes and monkeys, he said.
The new law likely won't disrupt one of Appalachia's tenacious religious traditions: snake handling.
The Division of Natural Resources already regulates how many rattlesnakes and copperheads someone can own.