It has been more than a year since Ohio made international headlines when Terry Thompson, 62, released his private menagerie of more than 50 wild animals near Zanesville, just before killing himself.
As night fell, Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz gave the only order he could, an order that his men should shoot to kill the lions, tigers, leopards, wolves and bears that Thompson had released from the cages on his farm.
By morning, 48 animals had died. Two were unaccounted for. Six — three big cats, two monkeys and a bear — had either not left the cages or were recaptured. They were transported to the Columbus Zoo where they were held in quarantine, during which one big cat was fatally injured by a cage door during transfer.
It should be clear that the deaths of those animals is on Thompson, no one else. And we would suggest that the cost of responding to Thompson’s irresponsible act should be borne by his estate, not Muskingum and Ohio taxpayers.
A land without laws
At the time, Ohio had virtually no law regulating the private ownership of dangerous animals. Common sense and political reality would seem to dictate a quick and effective response to that oversight. That was not to be.
It took nearly six months for the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 310, and the end result was not only too long in coming but it had been watered down through lobbying efforts of the owners and traders of wild animals and its implementation stretched out over a period of years.
And now, even that law is obviously being ignored by many owners — perhaps hundreds of them— and implementation of its key provisions have been challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by four animal owners.
There are two good reasons to restrict or ban ownership of exotic animals. First and foremost is the potential danger that such animals represent to the public at large and the cost that falls on the public when something goes wrong. Second is society’s interest in seeing to it that animals receive humane treatment from the humans that purport to take responsibility for them. The state’s interest in upholding such principles in law is well established.
A right or a privilege?
The federal suit contends that SB 310 threatens owners’ First Amendment and property rights. The owners say the law would force them to join private associations, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America. They also claim that the costs of providing for the animals in ways prescribed by law — maintaining insurance and having identifying microchips implanted in the animals before registration — are prohibitive. This, they say, amounts to an illegal taking of their property without compensation.
The state has agreed to delay seeking sanctions against unregistered owners until after a hearing in mid-December.
If the law is ruled unconstitutional on the “association” argument, it will prove only that the Legislature was foolish in attempting to accommodate the owners of exotic animals by giving them an avenue toward responsible ownership.
The better response would have simply been to outlaw private ownership of animals such as large cats, bears, wolves, poisonous snakes, alligators and crocodiles. Twenty-nine of the 50 states have some form of an ownership ban, so it would appear that the “takings” argument would be an uphill climb to the Supreme Court of the United States.
As of the Nov. 5 deadline for initial registration under the law, 130 private owners, not including zoos, submitted applications covering 483 animals. Agriculture Department Director David Daniels says the state believes there are as many as 600 people who own animals covered by the law.
It appears that hundreds of owners are either prepared to ignore the law or are banking on a win in federal court.
Unless the federal court issues an injunction, following next month’s hearing, the state should begin enforcing the law — to its letter and without further delay.
And it should start with the Muskingum County Animal Farm, to which Marian Thompson, the widow of Terry Thompson, returned those two big carts, two monkeys and a bear after they were released from quarantine.
If you have to ask the cost ...
As for claims that the law makes it too expensive for folks to own lions and tigers and bears, we’d offer an analogy. Just as someone who can’t afford auto insurance can’t afford to drive, someone who can’t afford complying with provisions of the dangerous animal law can’t afford the animal.
And for those who chafe under society’s restrictions, there are exotic places where man and wild animals share — or vie for — territory. They are free to move to those corners of the world, if they dare.