Zanesville, Ohio Animal Tragedy: Why Do People Own Exotic Pets?

PHOTO: A tractor carries a carcass for burial at the Muskingum County Animal Farm, Oct. 19, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio.
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The slaughter of over 50 renegade animals let loose from a backyard zoo in Zanesville, Ohio, Wednesday is shedding light on the people who actively pursue owning lions, bears, tigers, baboons and other exotic pets and why they risk their lives to tend to animals many consider dangerous and unfit for private habitation.

Terry Thompson, the man who released 56 animals from captivity before taking his own life, was already well known to national animal welfare advocates, not just because of the unusual number and variety of animals he collected, but because of the multiple complaints of animal mistreatment he incurred, including a 2005 conviction of animal cruelty. Mr. Thompson also served a one-year federal prison term for illegal gun possession.

His interest in curating his own private zoo on his 73-acre farm fits the description of many people who live with or near exotic animals, says Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy organization in Sacramento, Calif.

Unlike legitimate zoologists or veterinarians, many of these people are hobbyists, Mr. Roberts says, which means they don't have the professional experience needed to tend to the needs of the animals, and they often dodge public scrutiny because they carry themselves as experts.

"If that guy had that many dogs or cats on his property, he would be looked at as a hoarder. But because he had a menagerie and carried himself almost as a zoo operator, somehow that's considered better," Roberts says.

Others who live close to exotic animals tend to be men who "want the biggest, baddest animal on the block," Roberts says. Certain dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans used to fit the bill, but in recent years, due to the relative ease in most states of securing larger animals, animals like panthers, tigers, and lions have taken their place.

A third type of exotic animal owner is someone who "feels genuine love for the animals and wants them as surrogate children," says Roberts. "There are people who keep non-human primates and treat them as if they're their own children, let them sleep with them and dress them in human clothes as a replacement for the human children they never had," he says.

Lax state laws coupled with an urge to own an exotic creature is often a death sentence for both the owners and their pets. Animal care experts insist that private ownership is a public health and safety issue because the animal's behavior is often misunderstood and their health misdiagnosed by their owners who are ill equipped to be tending to their care.

According to the Captive Wild Animal Protection Campaign in Washington, D.C., 90 percent of large animals considered wild or exotic die within the first two years of captivity.

Their owners "really love these animals but they're loving them to death," says Tim Harrison, director of Outreach For Animals, a rescue operation in Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Harrison, a former police officer, was one of the emergency responders to the Thompson property late Tuesday.

"I've never heard of a happy ending for anyone owning a large, dangerous predator. It's like bringing a time bomb in your house and turning it on and never knowing when it will go off," Mr. Harrison says.

Another motivation for ownership is financial. Many exotic pet owners are breeders who sell offspring on the commercial market through auctions, trade shows, and online.

Another revenue source for owners is for photography and television shoots. For example, Thompson supplied a lion club for a 2008 fashion shoot featuring supermodel Heidi Klum.

Because these situations force the animals in close contact with people who have no experience dealing with them, they too are often fraught with peril. One example: a Siberian tiger killed a teenager in Altamont, Kan. in 2005 after her high school class decided to have their class photos in an exotic animal sanctuary.

Animal welfare experts say that, besides the political will needed to change state laws prohibiting the private ownership of wild animals, more education is needed to teach the public to respect wildlife by not coming into close contact with it.

Reality television is not helping that cause. Shows featuring professed animal experts like Jack Hanna, Jeff Corwin, and Steve Irwin often glamorize up-close encounters with animals that otherwise should not be domesticated. The popularity of television shows and video games like "Awesome Possum" and "Fatal Attractions" have only increased ownership of exotic animals, Harrison says.

When wild animals like alligators or tigers are ushered onto talk shows, they are often "surgically altered or sedated," says Harrison, which creates a misconception that the animals can work well in domesticated environments.

"[People] think they can do what their heroes do on TV. It's an American phenomenon," he says.

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