Over the past 48 hours, nearly fifty wild animals have been killed in Ohio after being released by their owner, Terry Thompson, who subsequently took his own life.
Through harrowing tales by Ohio residents and police officers, the online community has been seized with terror, imagining panic at encountering a lion, tiger or bear within a residential community.
Unfortunately, the majority of these reports overlook a more fundamental question: how did a sole individual, a felon no less, earn the right to possess dangerous exotic animals?
You may be surprised to learn that only 21 of the United States fully ban the private ownership of big cats, a peculiar fact when you consider that even domestic pet owners who knowingly possess dangerous animals subject themselves to legal liability. One doesn't have to think creatively to imagine the risks inherent in exotic animal ownership. Risks that affect the owner, his community, and each of his animals.
Owning a tiger, or 18 in Thompson's case, requires access to vast resources. An average Bengal tiger can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. They are able to eat as much as 60 pounds in one sitting, and neither of these facts address the tiger's behavior, which is surely inhibited by the sort of makeshift zoo created by someone like Thompson.
Although some animal rights activists decry all wild animal captivity, others draw distinctions between reputable zoos (such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)) and operations that are poorly regulated, if at all. Tellingly, only ten percent of the facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are accredited by the AZA.
I stumbled upon one unaccredited facility while driving from Texas to New Orleans several years ago. My brother and I pulled over at a gas station to refuel, oblivious to the fact that we'd stopped at the controversial Tiger Truck Stop, where owner Michael Sandlin has been displaying tigers for over twenty years.
Although Louisiana passed legislation in 2006 banning exotic pet possession, Tony -- Sandlin's one remaining Bengal tiger -- has been allowed to remain on site despite local and national campaigns to relocate him to an appropriate sanctuary. While the legal battle over his ownership continues to wage, Tony remains at the truck stop, suffering diesel fumes and the constant roar of Interestate-10.