What can we learn from Ohio’s animal Armageddon?

Jungle Jack Hanna, known as much for his zany humor as for his love of animals, was near tears as he described the carnage after 49 exotic animals escaped from a Zanesville, Ohio farm. He described it as if Noah’s Ark wrecked in the middle of Zanesville.

As Sheriff Matt Lutz described the activities in his morning press conference, my attention was on Hanna’s face. When I saw this usual jovial man fighting tears I suddenly realized the enormity of the situation. The sheriff’s deputies shot 48 animals including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions after exotic animal owner, Terry Thompson, released all the animals from their cages and then took his own life. One animal, a monkey, remains missing and is believed eaten by one of the big cats.

In all, more than 50 exotic animals including bears, tigers, lions, wolves, and monkeys were released from their cages. When officials arrived, six remained in or near their cages and were able to be rescued and transferred to the Columbus Zoo.

Neighbors described the scene as sounding like a war zone with one man estimating at least 350 shots were fired. When deputies arrived at the farm they had a little over an hour of daylight left to corral nearly 50 wild animals. Their first concern was the safety of the people—and that is as it should be. Law enforcement officers don’t travel with tranquilizer guns and the only choice they had was to shoot the animals. Jack Hanna supported Sheriff Lutz’s decision. The sheriff said that if the incident had happened during daylight his decision and approach would have been different.

It is a tragic incident. Many animal lovers have been angry over the deaths and Jack Hanna and the sheriff have even had death threats. As an animal lover I was sickened by the sight of the many proud, beautiful animals laid out ready for burial. However, I’m sure no one was more upset over the events than Hanna himself.

Animal rights lovers have a right to be angry but their anger should be directed at Ohio’s lax laws rather than the innocent people caught up in the nightmare. Ohio is one of several states with no rules or regulations regarding private ownership of exotic animals and even holds auctions regularly. Wayne  Pacelle, head of the Humane Society, equated Ohio to the Wild West.

What makes this incident even more tragic is it could have been avoided if an agreement negotiated by former governor Ted Strickland had been allowed to continue under the new administration. Pacelle said the Zanesville situation could have been prevented if Kasich had extended and enforced an exotic-animals ban signed by former Gov. Ted Strickland before leaving office in January. The ban was the last component of an animal-welfare deal worked out by Strickland, the Humane Society, Ohio Farm Bureau and others.

When Kasich took office he allowed the ban to lapse in April saying it was difficult to enforce and had no funding.  Bill Damschroder, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the agency that would have enforced the animal order, said he determined that it “exceeded the agency’s authority.” Damschroder said legislation was not in place that empowered the agency to do the things required by Strickland’s order. In addition, it allocated no resources for statewide enforcement.

Countering the argument, Dan Kobil, constitutional-law expert at Capital University, said that it is “at least strongly arguable that the governor has authority to issue an executive order to direct the ODNR to make rules protecting the state’s property … from exotic animals.” The governor seems to have very broad powers to issue executive orders. The only apparent limitation is action that would violate antitrust laws.

Janetta King, who was Strickland’s policy director, said that no one challenged the policy at the time. She said that ODNR has very broad authority to regulate wild animals.

Under Strickland’s order it required owners to register exotic animals with the state by May 1, 2011. It also prohibited anyone with a conviction involving abuse or neglect of animals from owning exotic animals. Thompson did have animal-cruelty and other related convictions in 2006.

In hindsight, it appears that the policy was indeed workable using executive order and giving ODNR the ability to enforce the regulations. This leaves only the second part of Kasich’s argument viable—lack of money. Was the plan scrapped at the altar of finance? If that is what happened, then it is a travesty.

Law enforcement officials know of many cases in their districts where individuals own one or more exotic animals. Several years ago a lion was spotted in our sleepy town of Gahanna. The “Gahanna lion” became a joke but we now see it was no laughing matter. Compounding the irony is the fact that the local high school mascot is a lion. Many people didn’t believe that a lion was on the prowl but it was first sighted by a police officer. He was quoted as saying that when he keyed the mike to tell HQ about his sighting he knew it would not be believed. Later I learned from a police officer that they knew of a property within a few miles of where we live that had a lion in a pen behind their house. The police department thought the lion might have escaped his enclosure and was wandering the area. The lion was never captured despite several sightings.

If some laws and regulations were in place then law enforcement would be able to eliminate these dangerous “pets”. Sheriff Lutz said they had been to Thompson’s property many times but because these animals were pets and not used for entertainment or sold they had no jurisdiction. Can a lion, tiger, or bear really be a pet? Even those hand raised and bottle fed can strike a death blow in a blink of an eye. A veteran Ohio animal rescue officer said that at least 20 private owners around the state have a least 20 exotic animals. “That is only the ones they know of, there could be many more across the state.” He added, “We’ve got houses full of pythons. These individuals will go unknown until there’s a house fire or something like that.”

This madness needs to be stopped now. Do you want to live next door to a house full of deadly snakes; or have lions, tigers, bears, and wolves in the woods behind you? The first sighting of the Gahanna lion occurred just a couple of miles from where I live in a heavily populated community.

One bright spot from this disaster is that a bill was introduced in the Ohio legislature today.  State Rep. Debbie Phillips’ bill is similar to the one championed by Gov. Strickland. Included in the bill is a requirement to embed electronic devices for tracking if they escape. It also includes an emergency clause to take effect immediately if passed. It permits existing owners of exotic animals with federal licenses to keep their animals.

An end to this insanity must come soon. Since 1993 Ohio has had 84 incidents and 10 deaths. Animal lovers everywhere call on the governor and legislature to put politics aside and pass legislation that protects both people and beasts. Remember the 49 animals that died a senseless death. If there is a next time men, women, and children could be included in the fatality count.

Only by the grace of God was no one killed in this animal Armageddon in Zanesville. We might not be so lucky the next time.










One Response to What can we learn from Ohio’s animal Armageddon?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.