**Warning- The following article contains graphic details, and may not be suitable for younger children**
On October 18, 2011, chaos broke out in a small southeastern Ohio town. Terry Thompson, a local man, released dozens of exotic animals from his privately owned farm, before taking his own life. The cages were cut in a fashion that rendered them unable to contain animals, even if they were relocated into their original enclosures. In total, Thompson owned 56 animals, and released 50.
Law enforcement began receiving calls around nightfall of exotic animals roaming near roadways and in neighbor’s backyards. Locals were informed to stay in their homes, nearby roadways adorned a “Caution Wild Animals” sign, and local school districts canceled classes. Authorities included the Muskingum County Police Department, headed by Sheriff Matt Lutz, the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and Jack Hanna, the Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Due to the nature of the situation, law enforcement officials were faced with the difficult decision to euthanize 17 lions, 18 Bengal tigers, 6 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, 3 cougars, 2 wolves and a baboon, amounting to 49 animals lost. One monkey was killed by another animal. 3 leopards, 2 monkeys, and a grizzly bear were left in their enclosures, allowing officials to tranquilize them before placing them at the Columbus Zoo.
Prior to the Zanesville Incident, Ohio was one of only 7 states that had no regulations regarding exotic animal ownership. No permit was required to own an exotic animal; however, owning native animals, such as deer, raccoons, and skunks, did require a permit. There was an executive order outlawing the ownership of exotic animals in Ohio placed by former governor Ted Strickland. This order was allowed to expire under governor John Kasich, as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said they would be unable to enforce it.
Previous calls had been made to law enforcement regarding the farm, mainly regarding escaped animals. In 2008, officers were called to the farm on reports of animal abuse and public safety violations. This included dilapidated enclosures, animals with no food or water, and ignored injuries. However, authorities decided that there was not enough evidence to convict Thompson of animal abuse charges. Instead, Thompson had to upgrade his facility, and call local law enforcement in the future if an animal escaped. Police continued to be contacted regarding Thompson’s animals, but with Ohio’s lack of regulations, the animals could not be confiscated. All of these factors contributed to the severity of the Zanesville Incident.
Local law enforcement faced backlash for euthanizing the animals as opposed to using tranquilizers. However, many factors of this incident prevented the safe use of tranquilizers as opposed to lethal force. After using tranquilizers, animals can initially show an aggressive response before the medication takes effect. With a 300+ pound tiger, this short response could very likely result in an attack. Officers were also called to the farm around nightfall, meaning the animals could have easily dispersed if not dispatched immediately. Although a tragic outcome, this response prevented any human harm from occurring.
After the events of the Zanesville massacre, awareness rose of the alarming rates of exotic pet ownership in Ohio. In 2014, regulations were passed outlawing the ownership of dangerous animals, including hyenas, tigers, lions, bears and cougars. If owners agreed to follow specific welfare guidelines, including purchasing insurance and obtaining permits, they could be grandfathered into this law. This law still has drastically reduced the number of exotic animals in Ohio, with the numbers now roughly ⅙ of what they were when the law passed in 2014. The state also built a 20,000-square-foot holding facility to house and care for exotic animals that are either seized or surrendered as a result of these new laws. Between 2013 and 2017, this facility housed over 200 animals, including 107 American alligators!
The Big Cat Public Safety Act
Eleven years after the events in Zanesville, the Big Cat Public Safety Act passed, federally outlawing the ownership of big cats. The bill also banned hands-on interactions with exotic big cats, such as cub petting. Prior to this bill, exotic animal ownership was only regulated on the state level, as shown above. The bill encompasses lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, and hybrids between these species. It does not, however, include some of the species included in the Zanesville Incident, such as bears and monkeys. Supporters of the bill included Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, Big Cat Rescue, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and even Sheriff Lutz himself. Hopefully, with the passage of this law, and continued efforts of its supporters, events like Zanesville will never be allowed to occur again.