What We Can Learn — and Should Do — After The Exotic Animal Deaths in Ohio

Black leopard rescued in Zanesville, Ohio
AP Photo/Grahm S. Jones
A black leopard rescued from a Zanesville, Ohio, farm was taken to the Columbus Zoo.

The pictures brought home the scale of the tragedy. The tawny fur of a full-grown lion, lying dead at a fence line. The body of a tiger, sprawled in the mud. And, worst of all, dozens of carcasses lined up for counting and burial outside the barn on the property the animals had called home.

As an animal lover and veterinarian, I know these images will always be with me. I know, too, that I will struggle for a long time to keep from imagining the horror of dealing with the carnage in person. My heart goes out to those who did, including my veterinary colleagues.

My heart aches for the dead — and the living. The latter have to deal with the second-guessing, and there has been no shortage of that.

No Good Solutions

I agree with my friend Jack Hanna, the world-renowned expert on wild animals. Law enforcement had no choice but to kill the animals, he said, noting that tranquilizing an agitated animal isn’t as easy as most people imagine.

“What happened here last night had to be done or else we would have had some major losses of human life,” he told our colleagues at ABC News, adding that being on the scene of the tragedy was “probably the worst thing in 45 years of history of working with animals.”

Knowing him as I do and his love of animals, I have no doubt that’s true.

So Who’s to Blame, and What’s to Be Done About It?

By all accounts the owner was a troubled man: Run-ins with the law, tax troubles, financial strain. Humane advocates say where he lived was no surprise: Ohio is one of only a handful of states where the ownership of exotic animals is virtually unregulated.

That will no doubt be changing — and soon.

Few would argue in favor of the anything-goes environment that set the scene for last week’s killings, and I am not doing so, either. But I would like lawmakers in Ohio and other places looking to ban the ownership of “exotics” to stop and think about what they are considering as the waves of new proposals come forward. The noisiest, best-funded groups are often first to suggest the most sweeping legislative remedies, and these are laws that too often do more harm than good.

If the killings in Zaneville, Ohio, turned your stomach, try imagining the deaths that will come from a total ban on exotic pets. Does anyone even agree on what animals are too dangerous to own? One proposal already out there can be interpreted to make ownership of a garter snake illegal.

And once they are illegal to own, where do you think all those tens of thousands of animals will go?

To the landfill. That’s where.

Moving Ahead in a Smart Way

We can all agree that one troubled man owning dozens of lions, tigers, leopards,  bears and other animals is a dangerous situation that never should have been allowed to reach the stage it did. But I can also tell you from talking to many of my veterinary colleagues who practice exotic or zoo animal medicine that there are good private sanctuaries and bad ones, just as there are good public zoos and bad ones.

The key is not who owns the animals but how well cared for they are, how well-funded the operation is and how carefully the safety of people and animals alike is protected. Common-sense regulations can mandate that. Sweeping bans of “dangerous animals,” however you define that phrase, cannot.

For lawmakers who need help, I suggest they call in the experts: the veterinarians who work in the fields of exotic and zoo medicine.

I would like to see something like the Model Aviculture Program (MAP), which was developed for the care and breeding of exotic birds. Though MAP is voluntary, it serves as a good basis for developling regulation — and it recognizes the contributions of expert veterinarians and the science-based protocols they contribute. A program such as MAP, given teeth for legal enforcement when needed, will protect animals, people and an ecosystem that doesn’t need more non-native species floating around.

Had sensible legal requirements been in place in Ohio, law enforcement would have had the tools it needed to respond to the plentiful warning signs — the loose animals, the financial problems and more. The animals would have been removed long before one man took it upon himself to set a nightmare in motion.

“I won’t forget what happened here today as long as I ever live, ” Hannah said after it was all over.

None of us should, and we need to use those painful memories to spur action — not to kill even more animals with sweeping bans but instead to protect them. Only with common sense regulations can we make sure both private sanctuaries and public zoos alike are held to protocols that ensure as best they can that such horror as last week’s slaughter never happens again.

Maybe then those poor, dead animals can rest in peace.

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