On the Ownership of Large Dangerous Wild Animals

Years ago, I read an old newspaper account of chaos in 19th century New York City; A storm damaged many of the cages at the Central Zoo, and most of the wild animals got out. The next day or two was spent rounding up the animals, and even the mayor and the governor, who were experienced big game hunters, got involved in tracking down the rhino and the hippo and the lions and the rest of them.

A few months ago, for some reason, that story re-emerged in my memory for the first time in decades, so I went and looked it up and found out that it was a hoax. I don't remember if I knew it was a hoax when I first read it ... I think not. I think I read it in a magazine at the dentist office and never followed up on it. As stories go, it's a great story. As hoaxes go, not so much. A bad hoax of a great story adds up to ... uninteresting.

But last weeks events were neither uninteresting nor a hoax.

Terry Thompson was a gun aficionado and collected wild animals. He recently served time for a weapons related violation (possession of sniper rifles and machine guns), and he's had several citations against him for animal cruelty or abuse. If sensible firearms regulations were in place and enforced, and sensible animal welfare rules were in place and enforced, Terry Thompson would not have been allowed to possess a firearm or some fifty plus "exotic animals."

But he possessed both, and the other day he set all of his animals free and then shot himself to death. This caused local police authorities to have to shoot forty-nine of the wild animals. (One of them was not shot because it was eaten by one of the other ones)

As best I can make out, this is the list of animals that were released and killed:

18 Bengal tigers
17 lions
2 Grizzly bears
6 black bears
1 baboon
3 mountain lions
2 wolves
1 Macaque (probably eaten by one of the cats)

It seems that after Thomson shot himself, one of the larger carnivores dined briefly on his head. Another half dozen or so animals were apparently not killed, were captured alive, or perhaps not released.

Police had a hard time dealing with this. They were getting reports of large wild animals roaming about. They tried using tranquilizers but that wasn't going well. In the end, they shot a lot of animals that I reckon they didn't want to have to shoot, and then they had to drag them all together and dispose of them.

So yeah, it was a little like that story which was a hoax, but not as glamorous. Mostly, just one big mess. Caused by someone owning wild animals who should not have been allowed to do so. And guns. He shouldn't have had the guns either.

People do own large dangerous animals responsibly, but it is probably difficult to monitor this activity, and thus difficult to tell when a responsible company or organization has started to go bad. The thing that happened in Ohio is not what we expect to see with every individual or organization that owns a few tigers or bears or lions ... this was extreme ... but hidden behind the more spectacular newsworthy stories are a lot of animals in bad conditions in private hands.

I can't say that I'm totally opposed to the ownership of large dangerous exotic animals. But it should be very heavily regulated, by federal authorities, and done for the right reasons, which are pretty limited in my opinion.

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It really says something for the issue of animal abuse with this guy. At first him releasing them sounds like 'aww, he wanted them to go free. stupid but nice'. But realistically, he had to know that they'd all be killed, and possibly kill some other people, by letting them go. If he cared about the animals at all he'd've left them in their cages with food.

And I didn't realize he had a wife, so its not like it'd take long for them to be found in their cages.

Definitely, this guy shouldn't've had animals or the guns.

I used to work at a zoo not unlike this one for a couple of years. Although we had several experienced zoo keepers and trainers around, I shudder thinking back on some of my close calls. This included dragging a friend from an overly playful Siberian Tiger (5 stitches), a bear bite that wrecked another keepers hand, I only narrowly missed getting my left arm ripped open by a female chimp, a loose male African Lion that had already killed one of its trainers (my role was keeping it separated from a hippo with a 30-30) and the accidental release of 5 arctic wolves. I loved working with the elephants but hated camels. OK I can hardly call myself a professional but when you consider how many owners are attacked by their âpetsâ this is something that I would never do.

By Bob Gotschall (not verified) on 23 Oct 2011 #permalink

I'm sure it must have bothered many of the officers to shoot so many animals in what must have been simply a slaughter; it couldn't even be rationalized as a hunt.

I haven't seen any information on how this guy could afford the animals. Any ideas?

Very few people get the opportunity to stand several meters away from a super predator who may or may not decide to charge/jump on you. I can tell you, it is an experience one will not forget, and I'll be some of these officers will remember those encounters as having more of a sense of danger than anything else they encounter in their careers, even if they deal with PCP-hyped armed crazy people now and then.

When people hunt these super predators they don't do it the way these cops needed to. The situation is much more controlled, normally.

Good question on how this was paid for! I have no idea.

I realize it was not a safe situation for them, and am certainly not blaming them for their actions: there is no doubt it had to be done. I'm just afraid it will linger with them.

About how it was paid for: I'm glad to see I hadn't just missed something that had been widely stated.

It is a well-kept secret that all accredited zoos have to have an on-site arsenal capable of killing all of their animals in the event of an escape. As these officers found out, tranquilizer darts take too long to kick in when human life is at stake.

A few corrections.....

They did not attempt to use tranquilizer guns before resorting to shooting; the tranquilizer guns were at least half an hour and a veterinarian away, and they had dangerous macro predators coming at them now. Plus, as they later indicated in interviews, the trouble with tranquilizers is that not only can the animal hurt people for the 15 minutes or so in which the drug begins to work, it will likely run off and then you will have a dickens of a time finding it again. One lion had jumped into a citizen's back yard. A black bear was shot dead as it charged a deputy. (Damn good shooting, too; he dropped it only 7 feet away, and shooting a bear at that range means you had better kill it on the first shot or it'll do it's best to kill you.) The deputies who've been interviewed all expressed great sorrow at having to do this, but their duty was clear -- they had to protect the public by the most expedient means available, and that meant shooting them.

However, they didn't kill all of the animals. In addition to the macaque who'd been eaten, there was another monkey possibly infected with herpes. It was never found, and they suspect a lion ate it. They were planning necropsies to see if they could find it in somebody's stomach. Also, six animals did not leave their pens and were able to be transported alive to the Columbus Zoo, where they have been recovering from the ordeal. But six survivors out of that guy's menagerie is a sad outcome. I blame no one but the owner. He created this situation. We desperately need stronger regulations against ownership of non-domestic species.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 24 Oct 2011 #permalink

They did not attempt to use tranquilizer guns before resorting to shooting; the tranquilizer guns were at least half an hour and a veterinarian away, and they had dangerous macro predators coming at them now.

I read one news report in which it was stated that tranqs were used but abandoned. Specifically, a tiger was hit with a dart, it ran off into the woods and got mad, then they went and shot it.

As you point out, it really wasn't an option. And, in fact, I was surprised to read that they had even tried, but there is that one report.

Your other correction are not really corrections because it is what I said ... except that I did not know that there were two monkeys possibly eaten. So, were there a total of three "monkeys" (one eaten, one maybe eaten, and a baboon?) Also, I'm not sure what the six animals that were transported consisted of. Do you know?

@Calli Arcale (#7):
"We desperately need stronger regulations against ownership of non-domestic species."

I'd say we need stronger regulations of anything dangerous by proven maniacs like this one, and against keeping *all* kinds of animals (i.e. including dogs, cats and birds) by proven animal abusers.
Simply asking for laws against exotic animals will cause populist politicians to outlaw keeping frogs or lizards and drive keepers of dangerous or potentially invasive species underground (this brings pythons to the Everglades, which I think are much cuter than the gators there (but authorities disagree)).

So now the governor says he will sign a law to limit people keeping "exotic" animals. The same kind of law that the previous governor signed, which he let expire (regulations are just job-killers, doncha know).

Sad trivia; The US has the largest population of tigers in the world.

Not sure how I feel either, about the ownership of large dangerous animals thing. Out of curiosity, I looked up the statistics of people killed by cattle, which is apparently about 20 a year. My college girlfriend's mother was nearly one of them. I've seen multiple people put in hospitals by cattle, and one was just a six month old calf. I'm not really trying to draw a comparison, since there are practical purposes for non-vegetarians to keep cattle, and the number of cattle in the US is perhaps a more than a few orders of magnitude greater than human kept tigers and bears. But it's still interesting to think about. One of the many weird old farmer dude neighbors while I was growing up could show off a wicked injury from when a mule tried to bite off one of his pectorals. They may not have have a direct interest in eating people (though sometimes they'll chew on them a bit) but our large domestic herbivores can be downright dangerous too.

My take on this situation is a perfect example of why exotic wild animals need to be handled by professionals and not the average animal lover. Terry Thompson sounded like a very unstable person and his actions proved fatal. He shot himself and gave the lives of most of his animals. This is a perfect example of a utopia situation gone wrong. Terry had to have known the possibilities of what would happen to the animals if he were to let them go. He decided to make that choice. If these animals were in proper hands in a reserve or zoo or some other facility that professionals run, then they would still be alive.

I was assuming that Thompson set the lions, tigers, and bears free on his neighbors as an intentional act of violence. I suppose we should consider it lucky that he did that instead of turning his firearms on his fellow humans. His animals, while theoretically dangerous, were incompetent.

Shooting tiger and lions is understandable. Shooting 2 wolves? Come on. Don't get me wrong, if I was a deputy and ordered to shoot, I'd do it too, but how much of a real threat are 2 wolves? ...compared to pit bulls?

Mr. Thompson's actions originating in mental instability display the worst intentions for his fellow human beings as well as these wild animals. Locked up safely where they were until they would have been found and taken care of properly would at least have given them a chance. Unfortunately, the sanity or insanity of humans cannot be controlled. However, one thing that can and should be controlled much more strictly by law is how these exotic animals enter the country in the first place and how individuals like Mr. Thompson can get a hold of them for their collection? My husband and I are still appalled and saddened by the fact that these helpless, already threatened animals ended up paying with their lives for the ignorance and callousness of human beings. Assuming that it's costly and very difficult to coordinate I have to ask anyway: Was there really no other option than to kill them?

Yesterday in Canada two exotic snakes were found in two separate apartment buildings in the same area of Toronto. One was found in the toilet, while the other came up through a wall ...