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Ohio tragedy shows wild animals belong in the wild

By Will Travers, Special to CNN
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Thu October 20, 2011
A police officer drives past a sign warning of wild animals on the loose on October 19 in Zanesville, Ohio.
A police officer drives past a sign warning of wild animals on the loose on October 19 in Zanesville, Ohio.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Will Travers: Exotic animals must not be exploited as "pets" or backyard oddities
  • Travers: Ohio slaughter of 48 wild animals, including 18 tigers and 17 lions, is appalling
  • Ohio has a record of violent encounters between animals and people, he says
  • "Owning" exotic animals inexcusable, he says, and also puts human lives at risk

Editor's note: Will Tavers is CEO and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, whose mission is to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity, rescue animals in need and protect wildlife, including highly endangered species. The foundation includes Born Free USA, which runs a primate sanctuary in Texas for 500 primates rescued from laboratories, roadside zoos and private possession.

(CNN) -- Exotic animals should live in the wild, not be exploited in profit-motivated zoos -- or worse — as "pets" or backyard oddities by people who have a deeply misguided sense of dominion or ownership.

What happened in Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday has drawn dramatic attention to the private possession of exotics, an issue that is a major component of Born Free USA's mission to protect wildlife.

On Wednesday, 56 exotic animals — including lions, tigers, bears, giraffes and wolves — were freed from their captivity at a rural residence outside Zanesville. Police report the animals' "owner," 62-year-old Terry Thompson, let the animals out of their cages before he killed himself. Forty-nine of the animals -- including 18 tigers and 17 lions -- were shot dead by law enforcement officers.

Thankfully, other than Thompson's death, no human injuries have been reported as a result of this situation.

Will Travers
Will Travers

Ohio has had a recent flurry of incidents in which exotic animals being held by private individuals in or outside people's residences have been involved in violent encounters with humans. In September, an 80-year-old man was attacked by a kangaroo at an exotic-animal farm in Green Camp. In June, an escaped "pet" grivet monkey scratched two girls while he was on the loose in Fremont. In August 2010, a bear fatally mauled its caretaker on the owner's property in Columbus Station.

Born Free USA tracks such cases in our Exotic Animal Incidents Database. We list 86 incidents involving exotic animals in Ohio in recent years, and probably many other such encounters have gone unreported. Nationwide, our database lists nearly 1,600 incidents.

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There is no excuse for wild, potentially dangerous, exotic animals to be kept in private hands. Ohio is one of a handful of states with woefully few regulations on the books to govern such questionable close contact with wildlife, and Born Free USA has been pushing for years to get a stronger law enacted in the state.

In 2006, the Ohio Legislature quickly introduced a bill to restrict private possession of exotics after an Ashtabula County woman was mauled by a 500-pound black bear that escaped a pen kept by a nearby neighbor. The bill failed, and just four years later in 2010, an emergency executive order was put in place after a 24-year-old man was mauled to death by a black bear kept in a Columbia Township compound. The order temporarily banned private ownership of big cats, bears, alligators, crocodiles and certain snakes. In April 2011, the order expired upon the promise by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the governor that a new rule-making process would swiftly be established in order to implement regulations regarding possession of exotics. This still has not happened.

What will it take to get swift action in the state -- and in other states around the country that lack complete bans on exotic pet ownership? Will it take a bigger, more diverse animal escape? A monkeypox outbreak? People dying? There is no need to wait, no need to take this kind of dramatic and incomprehensible risk.

The drain on society from keeping exotic animals as pets is not insignificant. Humane societies, sheriff's departments and wildlife sanctuaries end up bearing the brunt of the cost of placing these animals and giving them humane, lifetime care.

In Texas, the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary provides permanent, safe, naturalistic and free-range accommodations for more than 500 macaques, vervets and baboons, many of whom have been rescued from captive lives of stress, deprivation and danger -- danger to both the monkeys and to their "owners."

Every chance we get, every day we come to work, in as many effective, forceful and creative ways we can, we encourage our members and supporters to spread the word that wild animals belong in the wild.

What happened in Ohio this week is appalling. All those animals, imprisoned for no good reason. Their "owner" was apparently a tortured soul who took his own life and put the lives of nearby residents in peril through his bizarre act. And all those wandering animals, confused by their sudden and unfathomable "freedom," were shot dead as though they were alien invaders in a safe bucolic land.

None of that had to happen. It could have been avoided. Private possession of exotic animals is inexcusable and it puts human lives at risk. When will we, as a civilization, learn that wild animals are just as entitled to live freely on this planet as we are and it is our duty and obligation to ensure that this is possible?

Maybe, just maybe, the wildlife slaughter on the streets of Ohio will finally spur the change we need for safer and more compassionate communities across the country.

He says 18 tigers and 17 lions were among them. Six animals were taken to the Columbus Zoo.

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