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Ohio Laws Questioned in Exotic Animal Tragedy

October 20, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The escape of more than 50 exotic animals in Zanesville is putting the spotlight on Ohio's laws regarding the ownership of dangerous, wild animals. Some say the tragedy could have been avoided had the state not allowed an executive order to expire.

Dozens of exotic animals including tigers, lions and bears escaped from their cages. The owner, Terry Thompson, took his own life. Most of the animals were hunted down and shot by law-enforcement officials on Wednesday.

Ohio does not regulate private ownership of wild animals. Larry Hostetler, executive director of the Muskingum County Animal Shelter, says the state's relaxed laws allowed this to happen.

"Mr. Thompson had way more animals than he could care for. There's been constant complaints of neglect, and there was no purpose for him having all these animals, so hopefully this will help change things."

Thompson had been convicted of animal cruelty in 2005, and an order issued by former Gov. Ted Strickland in January prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals. In April, Gov. John Kasich allowed the ban to expire and convened a group to develop new standards. The governor's office says the ban was "unenforceable" and would not have prevented the situation in Zanesville.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, Ohio is one of the top five states for incidents involving exotic pets, with 22 documented cases since 2003. Its president and chief executive officer, Wayne Pacelle, says this one takes the cake.

"It happens to be the most bizarre and surreal and the biggest of the incidents in Ohio, but it's just one other example of why Ohio needs rules and regulations to forbid people from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets. It's the Wild West."

The Humane Society is asking state leaders to issue an emergency rule to crack down on keeping dangerous exotics until the Ohio Department of Natural Resources or the Legislature can adopt a permanent legal solution.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH