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Veterinarian recounts chaos incited by release of exotics

Ohio's exotic ownership laws under scrutiny

October 25, 2011
By Phyllis DeGioia

Six of nearly 60 wild, exotic animals are all that survived from a Zanesville, Ohio, farm. Photos courtesy of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Tranquilizing 56 or so big cats, bears and other exotic animals released on Oct. 18 from a suicidal man's farm in Zaneville, Ohio, wasn't an option. "The only thing that will take an animal down immediately on impact is a bullet."  

That's how Dr. Gwen Myers, one of the four veterinarians from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, sees it. Myers was on hand the night Terry Thompson, 62, freed lions, tigers, leopards, bears and other animals caged on his property right before committing suicide. What resulted is what some characterized as a "big game hunt," with the Muskingum County Sheriff's Department using assault rifles to kill 49 exotic animals.  

Six animals survived. Three spotted cats resembling small leopards, two Celebes macaques and a young brown bear are being cared for by the Columbus Zoo and the Wilds, a private non-profit conservation center in Ohio.   

Gov. John Kasich responded to the incident by issuing an executive order on Friday, calling on local humane societies and health agencies to aggressively enforce Ohio's existing welfare laws in place since the 1950s.

However, Ohio's laws governing exotic animals are considered by critics to be some of the weakest in the country. Right now, a permit is not required to possess a non-domestic animal in Ohio, though one is required to import a non-domestic animal across state lines. Kasich, under heavy criticism for failing to address issues pertaining to housing exotic animals sooner, formed a task force to craft a new legal framework designed to further regulate the ownership of wild animals in Ohio. A report is being fast-tracked, due Nov. 30, with the goal of getting legislation in front of the General Assembly.

Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, wants veterinarians to have a seat at the table. Historically, clamping down on exotic animal ownership has been a losing battle in the Statehouse.

"We have sought to have Ohio regulations in place, and over the years we have failed to gain any traction," Advent said. "There are people who simply don't want it. It's a difficult issue. One challenge is where to draw the line. What is a wild and dangerous exotic species that should be regulated or prohibited?   

"We support the idea that there should be some sort of legislation from a public safety and animal welfare position," he added. 

The exotic animal release and killings made national news and incited outrage from conservationists and animal activists. Many expressed understanding for the position of sheriff's deputies but indignation concerning lax laws that allowed a private citizen to keep so many endangered, exotic animals.

Others were not so sympathetic to the plight of authorities: "Police too often respond to one complaint with a hail of bullets ... Even when it comes to exotics, the reality is that this kind of slaughter is unnecessary — a little patience and the occasional tranquilizer gun can usually get animals back together," wrote Glenn Hurowitz, senior fellow for the Center of International Policy in a column for The Huffington Post.

Shooting the animals was necessary to protect the public and officers at the scene, countered Myers in an interview with the VIN News Service. According to a local news report, another veterinarian got close enough to a tiger to shoot a tranquilizer into its neck. The animal ran straight toward her. 

"Anesthesia is not as simple as putting a dart in the animal, and it goes to sleep right away like you see in the movies," Myers explained. "There isn't a safe drug out there that will take an animal down immediately. You want to hit a muscle mass; you can't just fire randomly. We don't have any information on body weight, health status or behavior. We don't know if they're aggressive, even though you have to assume there's a large bit of aggression.”   

Sheriff's deputies and veterinarians initially did not know how many animals were let loose, Myers added. It later was revealed that 17 lions and 18 tigers were roaming free.    

“The logistics are difficult enough to anesthetize two animals,” Myers said. “Here, in a controlled facility at the zoo, it's difficult to anesthetize two simultaneously. There are some huge challenges. Consider the hilly wooded landscape, several buildings in shambles, rundown barns, approximately 100 or maybe more junked vehicles, farm equipment and about 60 or 70 head of horses running around. It was pitch black and raining. Deputies were finding animals by car headlights; it's a slippery, muddy landscape. Terrifying must describe what those deputies were experiencing.”   

Had there been an opportunity to tranquilize the animals, the veterinarians were ready. It takes 10 to 15 minutes after a tranquilizer is given for an animal to be safe enough to handle, Myers said. 

“Think how far an animal can travel in eight minutes,” Myers added. “By the time we found the animal, the drug could have worn off. Or I could have killed the animal with the dose of tranquilizers.”   

Another hurdle to keeping the animals alive: Thompson had damaged several pens, making it impossible to contain them.   

Authorities are unclear why Thompson chose to release the animals before shooting himself. Myers was familiar with Thompson's animal compound before it made national headlines. In June 2008, she assisted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in a raid of Thompson's farm; the veterinarian's presence was required in case animals were turned loose on the property. 

According to a press release, the ATF seized 133 weapons during the raid. Thompson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possessing eight illegal firearms, including fully automatic weapons. Thompson was sentenced to prison and released in late September.

Myers said she believes the animals suffered long before they were released, pursued and killed, due to inadequate housing conditions on the farm.

"With all this sorrow and devastation, part of me is angry that these animals lived in those conditions and died," she said. "I do like that there is momentum for us to make some changes (legislatively), but I hope it translates into changes nationwide. It should be a wake-up call for all states to consider what they potentially have in their back yard." 

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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