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:
- Congress should pass the Captive Primate Safety Act, to ban the interstate commerce in chimpanzees, monkeys, and other primates as pets. One of the animals on the loose in Zanesville was a macaque monkey which may have had the Herpes B virus. Legislation to bar the primate pet trade passed the House of Representatives in 2009 shortly after Travis the pet chimp severely mauled and disfigured a Connecticut woman, but the bill stalled in the Senate. It's been reintroduced as S. 1324 by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), David Vitter (R-LA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should finalize a proposed rule to ban the interstate trade in nine species of large constrictor snakes including Burmese pythons and anacondas. A two-year-old girl was killed in Florida last year when her family's python escaped from its tank and suffocated her. These particular species not only pose a threat to public safety, but also have been determined by the U.S. Geological Survey to pose the greatest risk of wreaking ecological havoc on our natural resources. The Obama administration has been sitting on the proposed rule for some time, and should finalize it without delay.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should finalize another proposed rule to remove generic tigers from the list of species exempt from registration under the captive-bred wildlife regulations. Because of this exemption, there is no oversight of interstate commerce in tigers bred in captivity from an unknown or mixed lineage. There are likely more tigers living in the U.S. today than exist in the wild, though the total number of captive tigers is unknown because there is no comprehensive national reporting system. By finalizing this rule, all tigers would be subject to the same rules as other endangered species and a person would need to obtain authorization from the FWS to conduct any otherwise prohibited activities. Facilities holding captive tigers would have to annually report their numbers, which would provide information on how many tigers are in captivity.
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.