Death of exotic animals heralds federal reform

On Oct. 19 in Zanesville, Ohio, owner of Muskingum County Animal Farm, Terry Thompson, freed 51 to 56 exotic animals (reports vary) from their cages before killing himself with a shotgun. The animals that escaped from the private reserve included lions, tigers, baboons, wolves and bears. Only six of the animals survived after law enforcement was set with the task of rounding them up.

While the slaughter of those innocent animals is a tragedy, the rationale behind their deaths is understandable: It was a concern for public safety. According to National Geographic, even experts "agreed that the Ohio officers had little choice but to kill the animals." What is not understandable, however, is the underlying problem: There exists a serious flaw in the current legislation regarding the keeping of exotic animals as pets.

In a USA Today article, the head of the Humane Society of the United States Wayne Pacelle called the private ownership of dangerous exotic animals "an epidemic." "It's a bit of a free-for-all in states like Ohio," Pacelle said.   

Currently, Ohio is one of eight states that have no regulation regarding the ownership of exotic animals in private homes or reserves. Many of the federal laws already in place are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act and only cover certain species under specific conditions. For example, the animals in Zanesville were essentially pets and were not exhibited to the public as they would have been in a zoo or circus, so they were not under the jurisdiction of federal law.

In addition, the Endangered Species and Captive Wildlife Species Acts only cover a limited number of species, and simply "prohibit the sale and interstate transport of endangered animals," which was not the case in Zanesville. Possession, according to Sandra Cleva of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is not regulated by federal law, but rather left up to the state and local authorities.

According to the aforementioned USA Today article, the USDA actually investigated Thompson in 2008 and 2009 "following a complaint about the conditions in which the animals were kept." But because he was not "engaged in activities that [the USDA] regulates," the organization couldn't take further action. In addition, Thompson had been released from federal prison three weeks prior to the incident after serving a year for illegal possession of firearms, according to the New York Times. These "troubles" in Thompson's past highlight a necessity for extensive background checks and monitoring of those in possession of exotic creatures.

The events of Zanesville should act as a wake-up call regarding the possession of exotic species and its corresponding legislation. The staggering numbers of animals in captivity against those in the wild should be reason enough to justify the need for these laws. For example, a 2010 report by the World Wildlife Fund estimates about 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S., a figure significantly higher than the 3,200 believed to exist freely worldwide.

The bottom line? Blanket federal legislation is needed for the private possession, sale and exhibition of exotic animals. How many more innocent deaths will it take for federal and state legislators to realize this?