This month, National Geographic explores the debate over exotic animal ownership, in the wake of the Zanesville, Ohio, tragedy that saw over 50 animals cut loose on city streets after their owner committed suicide. The incident brought renewed attention to the issue of exotic pet ownership.
In March, Reason TV's Tracy Oppenheimer traveled to Ohio to investigate rigid regulations on exotic animal owners in the wake of the Zanesville tragedy. Original release date was March 26, 2014 and original writeup below.
In 2011, Ohio exotic animal owner Terry Thompson committed suicide after setting over 50 animals loose. No civilians were injured, but the story received widespread media attention and Ohioans called for action. The state responded by passing the Dangerous Animal Act in record time, introducing rigid regulations for all exotic animal owners.
"To focus on this, and this law, as fast as they did and to pass it as fast as they did was nothing but a knee-jerk reaction," says Cyndi Huntsman, president of Stump Hill Farm in Massillon, Ohio. Hunstman and a few other exotic animal owners banded together to sue the state over the act, and in early March 2014, the court ruled to uphold it.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture told Reason TV that federal qualifications and requirements are too loose and don't properly manage the ownership of the animals, but Huntsman says that the new state restrictions are keeping neither society nor the exotic animals any safer. She adds that new insurance, veterinary care, and cage requirements make it very difficult for the owners to maintain their animals.
"It's very taxing for the individual," Hunstman says. "It has cost us over $70,000 [to comply]." The law extends to a variety of animals, including many reptiles and primates, but the one-size-fits-all legislation doesn't differentiate among common sense needs for accomodation.
"You basically need to have the equivalent of a maximum security prison," says Maurice Thompson, director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law. "You need to have a minimum two acre lot no matter what kind of animal it is. It could be for monkeys, and you still need a two acre lot. That same size that applies to monkeys also applies for a tiger, or a rhinocerous."
Yet as the current law stands, owners who can't comply with the regulations will be forced to surrender their animals, and sancturaries like Stump Hill can only take so many. The Department of Agriculture built a facility in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, to take the remaining animals. It's unclear what will happen to the animals surrendered to the state facility, but Thompson says there is a better way to handle the threat of dangerous animals escaping and wreaking havoc.
"If the animals cause harm or if the animals are even loose and roaming the streets then you throw the book at these people," says Thompson. "Punishment or the prospect of punishment has a deterrence effect, and you have to rely upon the court system rather than over-the-top regulations to accomplish these goals."
Written and produced by Tracy Oppenheimer. Camera by Josh Swain and Amanda Winkler. Music by Krackatoa.
About 5:30 minutes.