20 October 2011


So how many things can you count wrong with this picture? An Ohio man receives a felony conviction for possession of illegal firearms, and serves a year in the state penitentiary. Upon his release a few weeks ago, he returns to his estranged wife and their 73-acre private game reserve, where 56 exotic animals (mostly large predators) are kept in cages. On Tuesday, the man, Terry Thompson, was apparently bitten on the head by one of his captive animals, a Bengal tiger. A short time later, he systematically opened all the animals' cages and the gate to the preserve, then committed suicide by shooting himself.

The freed animals quickly scattered, and law enforcement agencies issued alerts for people to remain in their homes, and alerted passing motorists to remain in their vehicles. Law enforcement then began to hunt down and kill as many of the escaped predators as they could. By last night, only a single monkey was unaccounted for. Among the dead ~

~ 1 baboon

The situation was tailor-made for slaughter, and law enforcement cannot be faulted for their actions. If it had been only one or a few predators on the loose, then tracking, tranquilizing and capture might have been possible. But with so many large predators suddenly freed at once, the threat to humans, lifestock and pets was just too daunting. Draconian measures were unleashed. Now that the killing is over (see image above, a dead African lion, and image below, taken prior to mass burial), it falls upon us to ask the hard questions.

Millie Kerr writes ~ "How did a sole individual, a convicted felon no less, earn the right to possess dangerous exotic animals? You may be surprised to learn that only 21 of the United States fully ban the private ownership of big cats .... One doesn't have to think creatively to imagine the risks inherent in exotic animal ownership. Risks that affect the owner, his community, and each of his animals.

"Owning a tiger, or 18 in Thompson's case, requires access to vast resources. An average Bengal tiger can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. They are able to eat as much as 60 pounds in one sitting, and neither of these facts addresses the tiger's behavior, which is surely inhibited in the sort of makeshift zoo created by someone like Thompson .... Tellingly, only ten percent of the facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."

The Human Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April. Barry Long, an expert at the World Wildlife Fund, noted that tigers in general are endangered. He said there appear to be fewer of them living in the wild than there are in captivity in the U.S. alone. Over the last century, the worldwide population has plunged from about 100,000 in the wild to as few as 3200 .... More than half are Bengal tigers, which live in isolated pockets in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. "The tragic shooting of 18 tigers in Ohio really highlights what is happening on a daily basis to tigers in the wild throughout Asia," Long added in an email. "Their numbers are being decimated by poaching and habitat loss, and that is the real travesty here."

This terrible event features layers of tragedy. For decades we've seen private ownership of exotic animals end in harmful consequences. For example, people in the South, especially in Florida, buy immature pythons for the thrill of it, but when the snakes grow too large, they are abandoned in the wild ~ so many in fact that the Everglades are experiencing a population explosion of pythons, which drive out native predators and pose a threat to humans traversing the area.

It doesn't matter whether the creature is a mammal, a reptile, or a bird ~ if it isn't native to the region, private possession should be outlawed. Harrison Ford makes this point with regard not only to the animals themselves, but also to exotic animal products, in the powerful PSA Don't Buy It. Buying ivory products in the U.S. only encourages the slaughter of elephants in Africa. Buying exotic birds like macaws only endangers wild populations. Every such act has far-reaching, usually bloody consequences.

So the federal government and every state government are culpable when an event like the slaughter in Ohio unfolds. Culpable too are all individuals who engage in the trade or ownership of exotic species. A legitimate case can be made for licensed and accredited zoos and aquariums which serve as a genetic pool for species which are disappearing in the wild. For a time, the California condor disappeared from the wild entirely, surviving only in zoos. But the condor's numbers rallied to the point where small numbers have been successfully reintroduced to the wild.

This is human stewardship at its best ~ trained, responsible, caring, protective. The plants and animals of this Earth do not exist merely to feed or entertain us. They have a right to life, and a right to sufficient undisturbed habitat. As our numbers grow (see this countdown clock for real-time population figures ~ the world population should surpass 7 billion before the end of this month), so do our demands for land and resources. Wilderness and wildlife inevitably come out on the losing end, unless we (a) find acceptable ways of limiting human population, and (b) become proactive in preventing the abuse and destruction of those wild creatures still alive. Lions and tigers and bears ~ and wolves and sharks and butterflies ~ and falcons and cheetahs and owls ~ and ultimately ourselves.

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