It was headline news around the globe last week when Terry Thompson opened the cages at his private menagerie in Zanesville, Ohio, and then shot himself. Local responders combed the neighborhood with helicopters and infrared technology trying to track down the wild animals and protect the public. The 50 or so escaped animals included tigers, lions, cougars, wolves, grizzly and black bears, a baboon, and macaque monkeys. It's a tragedy for people and for the animals involved: they always die in a hail of bullets, paying the ultimate price for someone else's irresponsible actions.
Ohio is one of the few states with no restrictions on the private sale and possession of dangerous exotic wildlife. You can buy a Bengal tiger or Burmese python at an auction, and not only put yourself at risk, but jeopardize the health and safety of the entire community. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland issued an emergency order in January, pursuant to a deal negotiated by the Humane Society of the United States, barring the sale and possession of certain dangerous exotics, and if Gov. John Kasich had not allowed the order to expire in April, Terry Thompson's animals almost certainly would have been taken away due to his 2005 animal cruelty conviction.
It's not only Ohio that must act swiftly in response to the Zanesville incident, with a new emergency order by the governor and follow-up action by the legislature to ban the private possession of exotic animals. But other states like Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have lax laws that make them the wild west for exotic animal ownership, and need to have better rules in place to prevent tragedies like the one in Zanesville from occurring there.
The federal government, too, must play a role in drying up the supply and reducing the movement of these dangerous animals across the country. Congress passed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act in 2003, which banned the interstate commerce in lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, and cougars for the exotic pet trade. That law needs stronger enforcement, and Congress needs to take further action to address other dangerous animals like primates and giant snakes that are still easily sold over the Internet and at interstate auctions. There are three actions the federal government can take right now to help address these problems:
How many more tragedies must occur before policymakers take action? State and federal officials can and should get out in front of this problem and prevent the next child from being killed by a tiger, chimp, or python.
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