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.