OH: Exotics task force gets to work after Zanesville event

Columbus – Ohio Gov. John Kasich ordered a state task force to
wrap up its work by Nov. 30 and submit a report on how to regulate
dangerous exotic animals two days after a Zanesville, Ohio, man
apparently released his menagerie of 56 animals including tigers,
bears, and lions on Oct. 18.

The release of wild animals at the 73 acre-residence of Terry W.
Thompson is considered by animal rights activists the largest such
escape of animals in the U.S.

“Born Free USA is unaware of a higher number of exotic animals kept
as ‘pets’ escaping their enclosures in a single event, especially
considering the significant diversity of wild species involved,”
said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of the California-based
national animal advocacy group.

Thompson, 62, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot
wound, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said. Thompson’s body was
found near open animal cages and showed bite marks consistent of
big cats, and having been dragged a short distance, Lutz
said.

Sheriff deputies were forced to kill 48 animals to ensure public
safety, Lutz said. Six animals found in cages were transported to
the Columbus Zoo. Two others were killed by other animals.

Kasich signed an executive order Oct. 21 instructing state agencies
to address threats to animal welfare and public health and
safety.

“We don’t have a clue in this state of how many (wild) animals
there are; we have no inventory,” Kasich told reporters.

Because “governors can’t invent laws,” Kasich said he formed the
task force to take a look at a “very complicated issue” in order to
form a framework for legislation to be presented to the General
Assembly.

“We have to do this thing carefully. It is not something you slap
together,” he said.

“One of the unbelievable quirks of this law is that you can not
force somebody to get a license until they have possession of the
animal,” Kasich said at a news conference. “If you said we are not
going to allow a grizzly bear to come into the state, right now
they are not required to be licensed until the grizzly bear is in
the state. That is how convoluted a lot of the statute is in the
state.”

Kasich’s order highlighted the “underused” use of statutory arrest
authority of county humane societies to assist law enforcement
agencies to benefit animal welfare.

In the short run, Kasich said, he ordered a review of existing
native wild animal permits, asked the Ohio Department of
Agriculture to impose a temporary moratorium on the sale of wild
animals and close any unlicensed wild-animal auctions.

Ohio, through the agriculture department, will work with zoos to
find safe locations for wild animals that are confiscated or
impounded, Kasich said.

The Ohio DNR was instructed to establish a toll-free hotline and
website to better identify potential problems with wild
animals.

Suzi Hanna, wife of Jack Hanna, Columbus Zoo director emeritus,
read a statement on Hanna’s behalf at Kasich’s press conference.
Hanna said it was his hope that any legislation framework should
target exotic animals “kept in inhumane, substandard
conditions.”

In his statement, Hanna indicated only private individuals and
organizations, educators, reputable breeders, rescues and
sanctuaries with proper expertise, permits, resources, and
facilities should be allowed to keep exotic animals.

In the General Assembly, Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, and fellow
legislators introduced H.B. 352, as an emergency bill to ban
acquisition of dangerous exotic animals. The measure would require
residents already owning such animals to register them with the
Division of Wildlife and to have an identification microchip
inserted into the animal.

Phillips attended a recent meeting of the task force formulating
policies on exotic animals in Ohio and is looking for ways to
improve the legislation, she said.

“When I heard about the conditions (in Zanesville), I think there
were some real safety problems for the public and for the animals,”
Phillips said.

The Dangerous Wild Animal work group is chaired by Scott Zody,
interim director of the Ohio DNR.

The 11-member group comprises the Columbus Zoo, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Humane Society of the United States, Knox County
prosecutor’s office, Ohio Association of Animal Owners, Ohio Farm
Bureau, Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, U.S. Sportsmen’s
Alliance, and the Zoo Association of America.

Zody said the group met Oct. 24 and may meet several more times
before submitting a final report.

“The discussion points involved on who should have (wild animals)
and under what conditions is still fluid,” Zody said. “I don’t want
to prejudge the task force including to where to draw the
line.”

More than 97,000 people have signed a petition to ban the sale and
ownership of exotic animals in Ohio, started Oct. 19 by Ohio
University student Elizabeth Dumler, a senior biology major.

Dumler, of Dayton, said she was active in helping to generate
support for an executive order by former Gov. Ted Strickland that
banned ownership in January of wild and dangerous animals in Ohio.
Each time someone signs the petition, Dumler said, a copy goes to
Kasich’s office and to the DNR.

Strickland’s order was allowed to expire in April by Kasich,
because it did not have the force of Ohio law, he said.

Dumler’s petition goal was to achieve about 25,000 signatures, she
said.

“I was completely blown away; I am overwhelmed but happy,” Dumler
said of the rapidly growing response to her petition drive posted
on change.org, an Internet advocacy website. “People don’t want to
see what happened in Zanesville happen again.”

Deputy sheriffs, assisted by law enforcement officers from the
Division of Wildlife and zoological officials from the Columbus Zoo
and nearby Wilds animal preserve, converged on the Thompson
property Oct. 18 after being alerted by residents that wild animals
were roaming loose on Thompson’s property on Kopchak Road just west
of Zanesville and near Interstate 70.

Lutz said the first call to the sheriff’s office was at 5 p.m. on
Oct. 18 with a report that Thompson’s lion and bear were chasing
horses on a nearby property. With about 1½ hours of daylight left,
deputies were able to respond within 10 to 15 minutes, he
said.

Officers were quickly forced to fatally shoot 49 animals to protect
the safety of nearby residents, Lutz told reporters. A monkey was
apparently killed by other animals. Six animals, including
leopards, bears and monkeys, were removed from the residence and
taken to Columbus Zoo for safekeeping.

“It was a highly volatile area,” Lutz said of large, dangerous
animals on the move when law enforcement officers arrived at
Thompson’s residence. With only an hour of daylight left, officers
had to shoot some animals at close range with the their sidearms,
Lutz told reporters.

“Public safety was my No. 1 concern,” Lutz said at a media
briefing. “I gave the order that if animals looked like they were
going out, they went down. We could not have animals running
loose.”

As a result, 18 tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain
lions, two grizzly bears, two wolves, and one baboon were
killed.

For Lutz, one of the big take-aways from killing wild animals
roaming uncaged on Thompson’s property was clear: “People need to
realize these are not pets.”

The whereabouts is unknown of one monkey believed to carrying
Herpes B, a potentially lethal virus to humans. The monkey may have
been killed by other wild animals, Lutz said.

Jack Hanna, who graduated from nearby Muskingum College, was at the
scene of the wild animal incident and helped assist Lutz on how to
approach and deal with the escaped animals.

“The sheriff did the right thing,” Hanna said of Lutz’s decision to
kill the animals. “What was he to do at nighttime with tigers,
lions and leopards going out there? It was like Noah wrecking his
ark right here in Zanesville,” Hanna told reporters at a media
briefing with Lutz.

The six surviving animals – three leopards, two Celebes macaque
monkeys, and a grizzly bear – were taken to the Columbus Zoo where
they will be quarantined for at least 30 days, said Dr. Gwen Myers,
a veterinarian who responded to the animal emergency in
Zanesville.

“They are eating great and appear to be adjusting to our quarters,”
Myers said. “They are in a stressful period but nothing is life
threatening.”

The zoo is seeking donations to help defray costs of the animals’
relocation, care, and rehabilitation.

It wasn’t the first time the Columbus Zoo was at the Thompson farm
to observe the wild animals, Myers said. In 2008, the U.S.
Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms asked the zoo’s
assistance during a raid on Thompson’s residence to search the
property for illegal firearms.

Thompson’s wife, Marian, told a federal judge in 2009 that her
husband had bought her a baby lion as a birthday gift. It was
purchased at an exotic auction they attended in 1997, according to
federal court papers.

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