Virginia governor vows to examine laws on owning exotic animals

They weigh nearly 500 pounds, reach 10 feet in length, and are gorgeous, with muscles rippling through their striped orange-and-black coats. An adult Bengal tiger could be yours for about $700.

But if you take one home, you’ll need much deeper pockets. Tigers such as those that were kept at a farm in Zanesville, Ohio, can eat more than 20 pounds of meat a day. The owner of the farm, Terry Thompson, who apparently killed himself, had 18 Bengals, 17 lions and eight bears in his menagerie of 56 exotic animals. Forty-eight were shot dead last week after Thompson freed them.

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Terry Thompson killed himself just after releasing a horde of exotic animals into his neighborhood. (Oct. 21)

Terry Thompson killed himself just after releasing a horde of exotic animals into his neighborhood. (Oct. 21)

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Six of the exotic animals that were let loose from an Ohio preserve, including three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys, are now being cared for at the Columbus Zoo. (Oct. 20)

Six of the exotic animals that were let loose from an Ohio preserve, including three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys, are now being cared for at the Columbus Zoo. (Oct. 20)

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“This is a highlight-reel example of why Maryland is so restrictive” of ownership of exotic wildlife, said Paul A. Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Maryland doesn’t allow residents to own a tiger or any other large and dangerous animal. Virginia does. The Humane Society of the United States recently accused the state of having “little oversight of exotic animal ownership.”

Virginia requires “a permit for big cats, bears and wolves with no regulation at all for primates,” the society said in a news release.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) expressed concern about public safety and vowed to look into the state code, a spokesman said. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) also came under fire for lax laws regulating the ownership of exotic beasts. At least 20 exotic-animal farms were reported to exist in Ohio. Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the national Humane Society, said that Ohio “has become a Wild West situation” for the ownership of dangerous animals.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve had the high ground on this issue for decades,” Peditto said. “It’s much more difficult when the door is open to try to close it.”

Owners of exotic animals who move to Maryland with their pets get a rude awakening when they’re discovered. The animals are illegal, the owners are told. They are generally given 45 days to find an alternative home. If an animal has health problems, it is immediately removed.

“We will hear on occasion people say, ‘I was allowed to keep them in State X. I didn’t know they were illegal here,’ ” Peditto said. “We don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for that excuse. If you’re an owner . . . who likes to keep these pets, you know they’re highly regulated.”

In the wild, Bengal tigers eat elephant calves, cows, horses, moose and buffalo. Lions can grow to 9 feet long and 400 pounds and eat 100 pounds of meat in a few days. Grizzly bears, the largest carnivore, can stand up to 8 feet tall, weigh 1,400 pounds and eat everything from squirrels to moose.

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in the District, a lion pride — three adults and seven cubs — was fed an average of 480 pounds of beef a week in August. “We feed our lions and tigers restaurant-quality cow beef, which is typically comprised of ground meat, muscle, blood and bone,” said Jen Zoon, a spokeswoman. “We do not feed whole carcasses to our carnivores.”

Ohio resident Amy Rausch said she easily pays and cares for the eight monkeys she owns: “I buy monkey biscuits for $25 a bag. I have a big garden. I raise vegetables and feed them. I have a $50,000 life insurance policy. If my husband and I go at the same time, somebody will step in.”

Rausch, a member of the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, said she understands that feeding tigers and other large animals can be expensive, but she knows owners who manage. “There are places that sell chicken and beef wholesale,” she said.

An owner whom Rausch said she knows but wouldn’t name feeds horses to his exotic cats. He slaughters horses that are about to be put down for injuries such as broken legs. The horses are usually taken to him by owners who are ready to part with them, she said.

“Horse meat, I know it’s not in our culture to eat it, but other cultures eat it. Animals eat it,” she said. Rausch said the animals are cared for by veterinarians who make house calls. The public and government officials are overreacting to the events in Zanesville, she said. “That’s just not a normal scenario.”

 
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