Years ago, I read an old newspaper account of chaos in 19th century New York City; A storm damaged many of the cages at the Central Zoo, and most of the wild animals got out. The next day or two was spent rounding up the animals, and even the mayor and the governor, who were experienced big game hunters, got involved in tracking down the rhino and the hippo and the lions and the rest of them.
A few months ago, for some reason, that story re-emerged in my memory for the first time in decades, so I went and looked it up and found out that it was a hoax. I don’t remember if I knew it was a hoax when I first read it … I think not. I think I read it in a magazine at the dentist office and never followed up on it. As stories go, it’s a great story. As hoaxes go, not so much. A bad hoax of a great story adds up to … uninteresting.
But last weeks events were neither uninteresting nor a hoax.
Terry Thompson was a gun aficionado and collected wild animals. He recently served time for a weapons related violation (possession of sniper rifles and machine guns), and he’s had several citations against him for animal cruelty or abuse. If sensible firearms regulations were in place and enforced, and sensible animal welfare rules were in place and enforced, Terry Thompson would not have been allowed to possess a firearm or some fifty plus “exotic animals.”
But he possessed both, and the other day he set all of his animals free and then shot himself to death. This caused local police authorities to have to shoot forty-nine of the wild animals. (One of them was not shot because it was eaten by one of the other ones)
As best I can make out, this is the list of animals that were released and killed:
18 Bengal tigers
2 Grizzly bears
6 black bears
3 mountain lions
1 Macaque (probably eaten by one of the cats)
It seems that after Thomson shot himself, one of the larger carnivores dined briefly on his head. Another half dozen or so animals were apparently not killed, were captured alive, or perhaps not released.
Police had a hard time dealing with this. They were getting reports of large wild animals roaming about. They tried using tranquilizers but that wasn’t going well. In the end, they shot a lot of animals that I reckon they didn’t want to have to shoot, and then they had to drag them all together and dispose of them.
So yeah, it was a little like that story which was a hoax, but not as glamorous. Mostly, just one big mess. Caused by someone owning wild animals who should not have been allowed to do so. And guns. He shouldn’t have had the guns either.
People do own large dangerous animals responsibly, but it is probably difficult to monitor this activity, and thus difficult to tell when a responsible company or organization has started to go bad. The thing that happened in Ohio is not what we expect to see with every individual or organization that owns a few tigers or bears or lions … this was extreme … but hidden behind the more spectacular newsworthy stories are a lot of animals in bad conditions in private hands.
I can’t say that I’m totally opposed to the ownership of large dangerous exotic animals. But it should be very heavily regulated, by federal authorities, and done for the right reasons, which are pretty limited in my opinion.