Late last night, sheriffs' deputies in Muskingum County, Ohio responded to reported sightings of tigers, lions and bears by descending on the farm of Terry Thompson, who was known to keep exotic animals. Thompson apparently opened the cages for approximately 50 of his animals and then killed himself.
Under orders from Muskingum County sheriff Matt Lutz, the sheriff's deputies began systematically shooting the endangered animals "at close range," ultimately slaughtering about 44 tigers, lions, grizzly bears, wolves and other animals both on the farm and in the surrounding area. As of this writing, only three animals had yet to be tracked down and "dispatched" in Lutz's words.
"We cannot have animals running loose in this county," Lutz said.
I've got news for you, Sheriff Lutz: your county is full of wild animals, whether you know it or not. If you spent more time getting to know them, you'd know that the first response to a wild animal is not to shoot it. Lutz should face review of his actions, and should probably lose his job. Although he explained his actions by saying he wanted to protect public safety, the way to do that is not through wanton, unconsidered shootings.
But possibly worse that Lutz's ignorant savagery was the attitude of Columbus Zoo director emeritus and television animal entertainer Jack Hanna. He was in the area - and decided to take to television to lend his support to the idea of shooting the animals. Hanna is notorious for defending improper uses of captive animals - and was hired by Sea World to defend their confinement of orcas after a captive orca killed its trainer, despite mountains of evidence that marine mammals don't belong in a zoo. PETA has described Hanna as a "professional wildlife pimp," because zoos and aquariums frequently hire him to defend controversial projects.
Lutz's ignorant savagery and Hanna's defense of it is the reflexive attitude of too many police and public officials in this country, and not just when it comes to exotic animals. Police too often respond to one complaint with a hail of bullets - even when it's native wildlife like black bears, wolves or mountain lions. This is especially true in areas where predators were exterminated decades past, but are now migrating in from other areas. The reality is most citizens want police to protect wildlife - but police too often respond to one complaint - or one informational call - with a paranoid response. They forget that we live in a landscape of wild animals and the fact that we live in a country that still has wild animals is one of the things that makes our country great. Police west of the Mississippi know that it's cougar country, and it's not that big a deal if someone spots one (unfortunately, some states still exhibit anti-wolf hatred).
Even when it comes to exotics, the reality is that this kind of slaughter is unnecessary - a little patience and the occasional tranquilizer gun can usually get animals back together. Lethal measures should only be used as a last resort - and especially in cases like this, where police are dealing with highly endangered animals like tigers (3,000 left in the wild) and lions (just 23,000). We need to do everything we can to keep these animals alive and reintroduce them into the wild where possible to bolster wild populations.
Of course, the real problem here is unregulated and often cruel private menageries of the type involved here. To their credit, both Hanna and Sheriff Lutz have called for Ohio to re-regulate these kinds of operations (Republican governor John Kasich shares some blame for this debacle; upon entering office earlier this year, he refused to renew an executive order providing some restrictions on keeping wild animals).
Americans love wildlife of all kinds; they support wildlife laws; and they want their public servants to go out of their way to protect them.