Zanesville deaths highlight the tragedy of exotic animal ownership
Last weekend, I found myself in the midst of a “teachable moment” with one of my hair stylists, as we discussed the horrible shooting deaths that occurred in Zanesville, Ohio, just one week ago.
All last week, it seemed like the whole nation was talking about the tragic killing by local law enforcement of nearly 50 wild animals, including 17 lions and 18 Bengal tigers, that had been released from their cages in a private menagerie. The subsequent suicide of their owner (Terry Thompson, a troubled veteran who had been the target of multiple complaints of animal cruelty, who recently finished serving a one-year prison sentence for illegal firearms charges, and who was struggling with debt) received rather less public sympathy, in comparison to the fate of his “pets.” The whole mess was yet another example of exotic animal ownership run amok.
And again, like in the notable case of Travis the rampaging chimpanzee, the result for the animals was death. Although it seems that most of Thompson’s monkeys were spared that fate (one has gone missing and may well have been eaten, but the others were either in cages inside his home or were successfully darted), the fact that they survived being owned by Thompson was an outcome based on sheer good luck.
My stylist asked me about a friend of hers who is considering purchasing a sugar glider. What did I think of the idea? Well, I’m no expert on the care, feeding, and conservation status of sugar gliders. I do know these cute little marsupials are nothing near as dangerous as Bengal tigers. But, as I told Rachel, any compassionate human being will have to consider what is best for the animal. Where will that baby sugar glider have come from? How will the individual animal adapt to being reared in isolation from the rest of its species? Most importantly—is it really in the interest of the well-being of any wild animal to be kept in unnatural confinement by a human being, just so that human can look “cool”?
According to an interview with retired Ohio police officer and exotic pet specialist Tim Harrison, exotic animal ownership skyrocketed once Animal Planet began to air in the mid-1990s. Viewers have been inspired by unrealistic footage of humans interacting with wild animals to acquire all manner of non-native species for themselves—often with negative consequences for the animals. In the hands of amateurs unfamiliar with the special needs of exotic creatures, wild animal pets often end up abused, neglected, or simply abandoned.
Until exotic animal ownership is properly regulated, we will see large-scale tragedies like the Zanesville massacre continue to unfold. No one will count the numberless small-scale tragedies of mistreated marmosets—or sugar gliders.
What do you think? Have you known anyone who was inspired by Animal Planet or other media to buy an exotic pet—even a pet primate? What was the outcome for the animal?