Insane — but only for a bit

October 20, 2011

“The state should immediately adopt a rule forbidding the private ownership of exotic animals.”

— Wayne Pecelle

President, Humane Society of the United States

“We have to have a strict permitting process here.”

— Jack Hanna

Director Emeritus,

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

By all accounts, what happened Tuesday night and Wednesday in Muskingum County was the largest exotic animal escape in American history. Some 56 animals, most of them large cats, bears and wolves, escaped from a private farm near Zanesville shortly before dark on Tuesday when their owner released them from their cages, cut the cage wires to prevent the cages from being reclosed and then committed suicide.

To put the scale of the escape in perspective, the animals at large included nine male and eight female lions. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has, according to their website, only three lions. The escape included 18 tigers. The zoo has four. The escaped animals included eight bears (six black and two grizzlies). The zoo has four bears. Three mountain lions, two wolves, a baboon and a monkey also escaped. News reports indicated that a grizzly bear, three leopards and two monkeys were captured alive and taken to the zoo and that several other primates had not been released and were also taken to the zoo.

Deputies arrived on the scene only 90 minutes before nightfall. They were immediately presented with a situation akin to (or worse than) all of the most dangerous animals from the Columbus Zoo escaping simultaneously. Knowing how close residential neighborhoods were to the area, they were forced to shoot and kill animals to attempt to prevent them from leaving the property. Zoo officials raced to the scene but director emeritus Jack Hanna (who drove through the night from a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania) later noted that they have only four tranquilizer guns and that large, dangerous animals cannot be tranquilized at night because of the danger to the person wielding the tranquilizer gun and because of the possibility that the animal will become enraged or wander off to points unknown and be lost again.

In fact, CNN later aired an interview with Dr. Barbara Wolfe, director of Wildlife at The Wilds who noted that a 300 pound tiger had been found alive on Wednesday morning. She went with a specialized team to find and capture the animal. In order to shoot it with a tranquilizer gun she had to approach within 15 feet of the animal. Ten seconds later it roared and charged at her and deputies on scene had to shoot and kill the animal before it could get to her.

The question then is how we got to this point. Particularly, how a man who would not have been permitted to own a firearm because of his felony record could be permitted to own dozens and dozens of dangerous exotic animals. The answer is that Ohio has some of the most lax regulations on wild animals of any state in the country. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States identified Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Ohio as the worst states in the nation on the control of exotic pets.

Ohio regulates only the breeding and exhibiting of exotic animals and requires that their owners certify that the animals are healthy and have been seen by a veterinarian. Because the facility in Muskingum County was neither breeding nor exhibiting the animals, it fell outside of Ohio’s regulatory structure and was permitted to operate without interference.

Among neighboring states, Pennsylvania permits exotic animal ownership, but only with a permit from the state wildlife commission. Michigan bans all private ownership of large cat species and bears and has strict regulation on the transportation of those animals into the State. Kentucky bans all ownership of inherently dangerous animals, including lions, tigers, bears and non-human primates.

A now expired Executive Order in Ohio had banned the ownership of exotic animals, though it grandfathered existing animals through an annual permit process. Officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, interviewed during the Muskingum County incident, noted that they were already working on developing a new exotic animal regulatory scheme in Ohio and that they hoped to have a draft proposal to the state legislature in approximately 30 days.

ODNR says that there is no official count of the number of exotic pets in the state. Any new regulation would therefore either require self-reporting, mandatory reporting by veterinarians, or an effort to seek out exotic pets throughout the state.

David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.