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Ohio escape renews call for exotic-animal crackdown

The case of a man who set his bears, tigers and other beasts free before apparently killing himself has brought calls for a clampdown on owning exotic animals.
/ Source: msnbc.com

The case of an Ohio man who set loose his collection of wild bears, lions, tigers and other beasts before apparently killing himself has animal-welfare organizations renewing their call for a clampdown on ownership of exotic animals.

“Exotic, dangerous animals simply do not belong in private hands. It’s not worth the risk,” said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA.

Authorities believe Terry Thompson, owner of a 73-acre exotic-animal farm near rural Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages to free his collection of animals before shooting himself Tuesday. Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies frantically raced to track down the 50-plus animals that escaped before they could harm anyone.

Deputies fatally shot 49 of the animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers. Six were recaptured.

The last missing animal, a monkey thought to be carrying a herpes virus, was found to have been eaten by one of the large cats, the sheriff said late Wednesday.

Thompson, 62, had a criminal record. He was released from federal prison just last month, after serving a one-year term for weapons violations stemming from the discovery of more than 100 guns on his property in 2008, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

He was also convicted in municipal court in 2005 of cruelty to animals, having an animal at large and two counts of rendering animal waste without a license, according to the Dispatch. His preserve was home to a menagerie of lions, tigers, bears, wolves, giraffes, monkeys and other animals, many bought at auctions.

Animal-welfare groups say Ohio is notoriously lax when it comes to wild-animal ownership. It's one of fewer than 10 states that have no rules regulating the sale and ownership of exotic animals.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said Thompson would have been barred from owning exotic animals had a state emergency rule on keeping dangerous exotics animals been in effect.

An executive order issued by former Gov. Ted Strickland just days before he left office in January prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals. The administration of current Gov. John Kasich allowed the order to expire in April, noting concerns about its enforceability and its impact on small businesses.

Kasich has convened a stakeholder group to develop standards, but Pacelle said immediate action is needed until the Ohio Department of Natural Resources or the Legislature can adopt a permanent legal solution.

“Every month brings a new, bizarre, almost surreal incident involving privately held dangerous wild animals,” Pacelle said in a statement. “In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions. Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it’s time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end.”

The Humane Society says it has documented 22 "incidents" with dangerous exotic animals in Ohio since 2003, including the widely reported killing last year in Lorain County of a 24-year-old man, Brent Kendra, by a captive black bear he reportedly was feeding.

Animal-welfare activists wanted the bear's owner, Sam Mazzola, charged with reckless homicide, but Kendra's death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later euthanized.

Mazzola was found dead in July, face-down on a water bed and restrained with handcuffs and chains, in his Columbia Station home. Authorities said he apparently choked on a sex toy.

Born Free says it has tracked more than 1,598 reported attacks and incidents since 1990 across the United States, including 86 in Ohio. The most recent incident prior to this week was on Sept. 22, when an 80-year-old man was injured after reportedly being attacked by his 6-foot-tall, 200-pound kangaroo at an exotic animal farm near Green Camp.

Laura Jones, director of comminations for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said a stakeholders group hopes to have a wild-animal proposal completed by the end of the year for the state Legislature to consider early next year.

"We’ve been working aggressively on having this proposal in place. I’m sure yesterday’s situation will be uppermost in their (lawmakers') minds as they consider this legislation," Jones told msnbc.com.

Roberts said the mass-escape of wild animals from Thompson's compound is particularly troubling because animal-welfare groups have been trying for years to get Ohio to strengthen its exotic-animal laws. Thompson had been warned about animals wandering off his property.

"The bottom line is, because Ohio like many other states didn’t have necessary laws in place to prevent this kind of exotic animal ownership, it really sets the stage for a potential catastrophic incident," Roberts told msnbc.com.

According to Born Free, Ohio is one of eight states that have no or extremely lax regulations on exotic-animal ownership. Twenty-one states ban private ownership, eight have partial bans and 13 have permitting or licensing regulations, the animal-welfare group says.

"The biggest lesson is, when groups like Born Free and others advocate against keeping of exotic animals as pets and the general reaction is we’re nothing more than Chicken Little going around saying the sky is falling, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Roberts said.