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Caution: Exotic Animals

A Zanesville, Ohio, man who owned a large private menagerie of tigers, lions, bears and monkeys opened the cages to many of the exotic animals then killed himself in his home Tuesday. Around 5:30pm, his neighbors began calling the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office to report sightings of animals wandering off of Terry Thompson’s land.

When police went to investigate, they were met by a herd of about 50 exotic animals, and Thompson’s body in the driveway. “I had deputies that had to shoot animals with their side arms,” said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz. Soon after, officials from nearby Columbus Zoo came armed with tranquilizers to help locate and rescue as many of the animals as possible. But it didn’t go as planned: ”We just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger that must’ve weighed 300 pounds, that was very aggressive. We got a tranquilizer in it, and this thing just went crazy,” Lutz said. After the incident, he ordered a shoot-to-kill for the remaining animals.

49 of Thompson’s 56 animals were dead and buried on his property, at the request of his estranged wife, by Wednesday morning. Authorities captured a grizzly, three leopards and two monkeys, which were sent to the Columbus Zoo for safekeeping. A baboon possibly infected with hepatitis B was still missing as of Wednesday night.

How did this happen?

Ohio has extremely lax governance over the ownership of exotic animals. The state’s “inadequate regulation” puts it near the bottom of the list in a 2009 report from the Humane Society of the United States. And earlier this year, an emergency rule which “prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals” expired, allowing Thompson, who was previously charged with and found guilty of animal cruelty and neglect, to keep his 56 lions and tigers and bears.

Public safety vs. animal protection

Immediately after this story broke, Zanesville residents and national news viewers began calling the sheriff’s office and Zanesville area shelter to ask why the animals–many of them listed as endangered species–were being killed rather than tranquilized or recaptured. The short answer: No time. The longer answer is best explained by Jack Hanna, beloved animal rights activist and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo:

“[Y]ou can’t tranquilize an animal in the dark. It upsets them … they settle in, they hunker down, they go to sleep. Obviously, we can’t find them in the dark. So what had to be done had to be done. Even a bear came after one of the officers last night, and she was just trying to get out of a car. … No one loves animals more than me, but human life has to come first.”

As night descended on Ohio and liberated exotic animals ran loose, swift and decisive action was needed to protect the human residents of Zanesville; unfortunately, it was at the expense of Thompson’s pets. The Humane Society supports Lutz’s actions and those of his team, and PETA, in a written statement, blamed legislation instead of law enforcement for the deaths.

Preventative action

Over the years, Lutz received “around 35 calls” about Thompson’s farm–all concerning “animals running loose to animals not being treated properly.” He went on to say that his office has “handled numerous complaints here, we’ve done numerous inspections here. So this has been a huge problem for us for a number of years.”

Former governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, imposed the legislation that was allowed by current governor, John Kasich, to lapse in April. Of Thompson, he said, “Someone with a record like this man was not intended to have these animals.” Strickland asserted that Thompson “would almost certainly have had his animals removed by May 1, 2011, if the emergency order had not expired.”

PETA, for its part, has been petitioning Ohio (and a number of other states) for years to institute “an outright ban” on owning exotic animals. The group is currently asking the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to “exercise its authority to declare emergency regulations to prohibit the keeping of exotic animals” as well as petitioning the state to “seize the animals over whom the agency has jurisdiction and see that they are placed in reputable sanctuaries.” Whether Gov. Kasich will comply has yet to be seen.

Is an outright ban on owning exotic animals the right move here, or should there just be stricter limitations on who can keep the animals (and where)?

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