Officials discuss fallout from exotic animals escapeWritten by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With all the escaped animals from an exotic animal farm near Zanesville, Ohio, accounted for Oct. 19, the focus has turned to enhancing exotic animal laws in Ohio to prevent future incidents.
“I’m hoping that this incident, as tragic as it was, will get the lawmakers in Columbus interested in this issue and we can get a ban in place,” said John Dinon, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society. “Ohio currently on a statewide basis has no restriction on private ownership of exotic animals except for native wildlife. You can’t own things that are native to Ohio, but if you want to have a lion or tiger or chimpanzee, that’s perfectly legal in most of Ohio. It is prohibited by some local ordinances, but if you live out in the country, in a township or even some cities, it’s probably perfectly legal to own any of these animals. It’s a very bad thing for animal welfare and public safety.”
An emergency executive order from former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland banning new exotic pets expired in March, leaving Ohio without any statewide regulations on exotic animal ownership.
Deputies went to the animal farm the night of Oct. 18 after the sheriff’s office received calls that wild animals were loose west of Zanesville. When deputies arrived on the scene, they found owner Terry Thompson dead by self-inflicted gun wounds with multiple aggressive animals near his body and all the cages open.
Deputies shot and killed 48 animals, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, a baboon and a wolf. The animals were all buried on the farm. Three leopards, two monkeys and a grizzly bear were captured alive and transported to the Columbus Zoo.
“They took a conservative approach and did what they could to protect the people, which I think is appropriate,” Dinon said. “A lot of people have said, ‘Why didn’t they tranquilize them? Why did they have to kill them?’ From what I understand, there were nearly 20 lions and nearly 20 tigers. In the dark, in the rain out in rural areas outside of Zanesville, there’s no way you’re going to tranquilize those guys and get them back.”
Dinon used to work at zoos before joining the humane society. He said tranquilizing the animals would not have been safe.
“I can tell you from the time you put a tranquilizer dart in an animal to when it goes to sleep in ideal conditions can be 5 to 20 minutes,” he said. “You’re not going to keep up with a lion or tiger running through the woods of Zanesville for 20 minutes and recover that animal. Animals when they are anesthetized by injectable anesthetics, they go through a hyper-excited phase where their behavior is especially unpredictable. I think it’s a tragedy that all these animals had to be killed, but I wouldn’t second guess or fault the sheriff’s department for doing what they did.”
Tim Harrison, the director of Outreach for Animals and subject of the 2010 documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room,” also supported the actions of the sheriff’s department.
“There were a lot of deputies out trying to keep the animals to a general area,” he said. “By the time the sun came up, they had shot more than 35 animals. It’s really sad. They had to because they are dangerous. The sheriff department didn’t have a choice but to kill the ones that are aggressive. Those are dangerous exotic animals. If you dart an animal, it takes 15-20 minutes for it to take effect. Now you have a drug-crazed animal running through the neighborhood that may never go down. You have to make a decision for public safety at that time. No police officer has ever been through the police academy and they teach you how to take care of an African lion or a tiger that’s loose.”
In all Harrison’s years of working with exotic animals, he said this is the first time he has been warned about them by a highway sign.
“This farm is right next to Interstate 70,” he said. “As we’re driving up 70, there’s a great big flashing sign saying, ‘Dangerous exotic animal on the loose. Stay in your car and call 911.’ I’ve never seen that before.”
While he hadn’t seen the literal signs before, he did see signs of an incident like this happening.
“It’s not like you had to be a brain surgeon to figure out that some situation where a bunch of exotic animals escape was going to happen in Ohio,” Harrison said. “There are too many of them here, and too many people who have them that shouldn’t. [Thompson] once had a full-grown African lion get loose in the neighborhood. They cited him, took his license away and gave it back to him. He ended up going to prison for illegal guns. He got out of there and still had his animals. He should have never had these animals in the first place.”