Dangerous exotic animals turned loose, hunted down in Ohio

A tiger cub for $700.

A baby cougar for $675.

And a 2-year-old giraffe for $25,000.

Private collectors actively trade in exotic animals all over the United States in a vibrant and poorly regulated market. One such collector created a day of fear and outrage after he turned loose dozens of lions, tigers, bears and other exotic animals in a small Ohio town and then shot himself Tuesday night.

Terry Thompson, 62, was found dead on his property. Through the night and into Wednesday afternoon, the animals from his private menagerie became the victims of an impromptu big-game hunt by sheriff’s deputies seeking to protect residents in Zanesville.

Schools were closed Wednesday, and residents were advised to stay indoors. Callers to 911 reported lions, bears and unidentified large mammals in back yards, wandering through cemeteries and near highways.

Deputies shot and killed 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzlies, three mountain lions and a baboon, the Associated Press reported. Three leopards, two monkeys and a grizzly bear were captured and sent to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. A wolf was found dead, and a monkey was still at large.

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told reporters that officers were ordered to kill the animals rather than sedate them for fear that those hit with darts would escape into the darkness before they dropped. “These animals were on the move. They were showing aggressive behavior,” Lutz said.

Thompson’s Muskingum County Animal Farm was familiar to local authorities. In 2005, Thompson paid a $750 fine for animal cruelty. Since 2004, he had been fined at least a half-dozen times for “animals on the loose,” a misdemeanor. Last month, he left prison after serving a year for gun violations.

Experts and animal rights groups said the scary scene in Ohio was a direct consequence of the wide availability of exotic animals, many of which are now bred in the United States.

“You can find absolutely any animal on the planet for sale in the U.S.,” said Bryan Christy, author of the 2009 book “The Lizard King,” an exposéof wildlife trafficking. “People who keep these large carnivores, it’s the same thing as keeping a loaded gun. That we allow people to keep bears and lions and tigers on their property is outrageous.”

Web sites such as exoticanimalsforsale.net match breeders and buyers. Wednesday the site listed a giraffe for $25,000. The Animal Finders Guide, a long-running classified newspaper, offers everything from aardvarks to zebras. And at barns in Ohio, Missouri, Texas and Indiana, sellers and buyers get together every few months for live auctions of exotic animals.

September sales at the Lolli Brothers Livestock Market in Macon, Mo. — identified by animal rights activists as the largest exotic-animal auction house in the country — included a tiger cub and a baby cougar, according the market’s Web site. But when reached by phone Wednesday, co-owner Dominic Lolli denied trading in big cats. “We never have,” he said.

Rules on exotic-pet ownership vary by state. About 20, including Maryland, ban private ownership of animals considered large and dangerous, including tigers, bears and great apes. But eight — Alabama, Idaho, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin — have no rules, according to the Humane Society. Ohio officials said they are working to put rules in place.

Animal rights groups have called on the federal government and states to compel owners to register and obtain permits for exotic animals, if only so authorities know the numbers and locations of animals.

The federal Animal Welfare Act applies only to commercial operations such as zoos, breeding operations that sell animals and auction houses. The act does not apply to private collections such as Thompson’s.

“If Mr. Thompson had exhibited the animals, bred them or transported them, he would need to be licensed by us,” said Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act. “He was not involved in those activities . . . so we did not inspect or regulate his farm.”

Animal rights groups have long targeted Ohio for its lax exotic-animal laws.

“Ohio has become a Wild West situation for ownership of dangerous exotics,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s the center of the exotic-auction industry. There are thousands of people with dangerous exotics in their homes.”

One well-known Ohio business, Mt. Hope Auction, has exotic-animal auctions three times a year, selling monkeys, parrots, llamas and other creatures. Beginning this year, Mt. Hope stopped selling lions, tigers, bears and wolves, co-owner Thurman Mullet said.

That’s because last year, the outgoing governor, Ted Strickland (D), signed an emergency order banning the sale of many large and dangerous animals in Ohio. Ownership of existing exotic animals was grandfathered under the law, unless the owner had been convicted — as Thompson had — of animal cruelty.

When the new governor, John R. Kasich (R), took office in January, he did not extend the emergency ban. If he had, the state would have had the authority to remove Thompson’s animals, Pacelle said.

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich, called the previous administration’s executive order “unenforceable.” The agency that was supposed to create the rules did not have the legal authority to enforce them, Nichols said.

A state task force is expected to issue recommendations in 30 days, he said. The Humane Society has a representative on the committee.

Kasich is well aware of criticism from animal rights activists who say Ohio is particularly lax on protecting large animals from abusive owners.

“For 200 years, we haven’t had anything,” Nichols said. “It’s a problem.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is one of many groups that have been pressing Ohio for stronger regulations. Thompson was tracked by the organization after it received complaints that he declawed tiger cubs, a federal violation, said Delcianna Winders, director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA.

“We keep files on all the exotic animals we get complaints about,” Winders said, but there was no way to know how many are captive and where because of a dearth of government registration and permits.

Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for World Wildlife Fund who monitors wild tigers, said there are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild worldwide. According to reports from interest groups, 5,000 tigers are held by U.S. owners compared with 3,200 living in the wild around the world.

Exotic animal lovers need not go far to get one. “Tigers breed well in captivity, and they can crank them out,” Henry said. “They breed like . . . cats.”

Director of news research Madonna Lebling and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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