It shouldn’t take a tragedy for Ohio to do what must be done

Ohio has a couple of blind spots when it comes to animals, and they demand attention in Columbus.

We have long suggested — based on horrendous incidents of cruelty to domestic pets — that the state’s animal cruelty laws be stiffened. Stories of dogs being allowed to starve to death in a kennel or, more recently, a kitten being used for target practice, not only tug at people’s hearts, they anger those who know that it is difficult to impossible to treat even a serial abuser of animals as anything other than a misdemeanant. Fatal injuries to animals occasion slaps on the wrists to their abusers.

Now comes a story of Ohio’s lackadaisical approach to an animal issue that has garnered the state national and international attention — none of it good.

We refer, of course, to killing of 48 exotic animals near Zanesville — including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions — after the owner of a private menagerie turned the animals loose and killed himself.

Terry Thompson, owner of the Muskingum County Animal Farm, may have once loved the animals he kept, but he surely knew he was condemning them to death when he set them free, just as he knew that he was endangering his neighbors and passersby, young and old alike.

Because of the danger that Thompson visited upon his community, the deaths of those animals fall on him, not the deputies who were forced to pull the trigger. Interviews with Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz and several of his deputies clearly showed that they were grieving over what they had to do.

But responsibility must be shared as well by a Legislature that has historically — and not just in recent history — been reluctant of infringe on what some perceive as a right of private individuals to keep exotic and dangerous pets.

The idea that the framers of the Constitution saw as inviolate the ability of private citizens to keep lions and tigers and bears (or alligators, pythons and asps) is, frankly, bizarre.

Some rights trump others

Most states long ago came to recognize as superior the rights of the general population to go about their lives without worry about the neighbor’s predator escaping to eat whatever children or domestic pets it came upon.

Ohio has made some progress controlling vicious dogs, but thanks primarily to the Supreme Court, which has upheld local ordinances that hold owners liable when their animals kill or maim.

But it takes action in Columbus to protect the entire state, especially residents of unincorporated areas.

Some see this as an animal rights issue, and they are welcome to their view. We see it as more than that, as an issue that affects the public safety and creates the potential for enormous expense on government when one — or more than 50 — wild animals escape from facilities that are either inherently inadequate to contain them, or are being run by unstable individuals — with Thompson being the poster child for that group.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has called on Gov. John Kasich to immediately renew an executive order regarding exotic animals that had been signed by former Gov. Ted Strickland and allowed to expire in April. That may be a good first step, but the Muskingum County Animal Farm operated while Strickland’s order was in effect. And it is now becoming apparent that people who knew of Thompson long feared that his preserve was an accident waiting to happen.

There is little doubt that our legislators are contemplating sundry initiatives in coming months that do not begin to compare with the need for Ohio to take action that would avert the next exotic animal tragedy. The General Assembly should get its priorities in order.

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