The tragedy in Zanesville that occurred last fall―with nearly 50 large wild animals shot by law enforcement personnel after Terry Thompson recklessly released them into the community―was just the most extreme example of what’s wrong with Ohio’s policies on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals. When Thompson released those animals before taking his own life, he sentenced them to a violent and premature death―which is the fate of so many dangerous wild animals who end up in the hands of people without the know-how or resources to provide lifetime care for them. Many of the details of the tragic events that unfolded that day are recounted in feature-length stories written by Chris Heath from GQ and Chris Jones from Esquire.
The HSUS had been demanding that Ohio address its urgent exotic animal problem for years. Even after we secured an eight-point animal welfare agreement in June 2010 with the prior governor and leading farm organizations in the state, Brent Kandra, a 24-year-old man who worked for notorious animal owner Sam Mazzola, was mauled and killed by a captive bear in Lorain County. A few years earlier in Ohio, a 10-year-old girl was seriously injured by a bite from a mountain lion kept as a pet, and a fireman was killed by his captive pit viper.
The state has seen an African lion chasing cars on the highway and alligators showing up in state parks. So many problems were documented in the award-winning documentary, The Elephant in the Living Room, featuring exotic animal specialist and emergency responder Tim Harrison, who has bravely and humanely dealt with these problems for years.
Except for the exotic animal industry, just about everybody agrees that something must be done, and we provided a litany of some of that support in a full-page ad in last week’s Columbus Dispatch. Ohio State Senator Troy Balderson has introduced a bill, S.B. 310, to create a new policy proposing a ban on new acquisitions of big cats, bears, primates, and a number of other classes of powerful animals. For people who currently have them, they’ll need to maintain the animals in sufficient enclosures that are safe for the community. We support those provisions. Rep. Brian Hill has introduced an identical companion bill in the House. (If you live in Ohio, please take action today.)
While The HSUS strongly supports the bill, and it would raise Ohio's standards above those of many other states, we have concerns about some provisions that we’d like to see fortified. There is no compelling reason to provide an exemption for private citizens accredited by the so-called Zoological Association of America; only two facilities are currently recognized by this group, but there could be a rush by private owners to become ZAA-accredited―and it shouldn’t be hard, since that organization is an exotic-owners’ rights organization with weak standards, and someone like Terry Thompson could easily have qualified for membership.
Balderson’s bill also has an allowance for people to acquire large constricting snakes, such as pythons, anacondas, and boa constrictors. And there is an exemption for school mascots, which is provided to allow Massillon High School to get a new tiger cub every year. We estimate the cost of food alone for a single tiger over an estimated 20-year lifespan is $200,000, since it costs so much to keep these animals. Over the 43-year period that the Massillon tiger tradition has been in place, that’s as much as $8.6 million in food costs for all those tiger cubs.
Ohio is one of seven states without rules governing private ownership of dangerous exotics. One of those states, West Virginia, just passed legislation to set up rules dealing with dangerous exotics. Bills are pending in four other states. And Congress is taking action on large constricting snakes, primates, and big cats, in separate bills. We are backing all of these measures and hope they are enacted.
There are no good outcomes here for the animals, for the sanctuaries that must take in animals cast off by reckless owners, or for the owners or innocent bystanders harmed by these creatures, who never should have ended up in these situations to start with.