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?


  1. Dana on October 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Friends of ours bought a ring-tailed lemur several years ago. The lemur was a sweet baby who appeared to bond with its owners…until it reached sexual maturity. There were several incidents, one involving the owner needing stitches, before they found a “sanctuary” for him. I was impressed with how they did visit the options for him, but was sad at the whole series of events. At least now he is with others from his species, but it’s a shame that people are profiting off of breeding these animals who really should be left in the wild. Yes, he was captive bred, but ring-tailed lemurs are not suitable pets. Our wildlife club just had a meeting regarding primates as pets, being used in research, etc.

    • Sharon on October 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      Dana, this sounds, unfortunately, like a typical case. That’s great that your club is talking about these issues–the best way to short-circuit this cycle is to reduce demand.

  2. Cindy on October 27, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I’m a classroom science teacher and for years some of my students at some point or another during the year usually say something about wanting to have a pet monkey. I guess they get the idea for this from the media – movies, TV commercials, TV shows. I always make a point of telling them how high maintenance monkeys are and what dangers await as they grow to maturity…and then expand the argument to include the keeping of exotic species in general. It’s all about education, education, education – legislation alone can’t make us do the right thing; we have to want to do it because we know why it is important.

  3. Lesa on October 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    There are domestic animals & there are wild animals. They’re in two different categories – for good reason. One likes being around people while the other does not – for good reason. There should be a federal law prohibiting the purchase, sale, and private ownership of wild animals – for good reason. The typical profile of exotic pet owners is: insecure, immature, low self-esteem, egocentric, delusional. They are the LAST people who should possess a wild animal as a pet. Period.

  4. Michelle Martin on October 31, 2011 at 1:36 am

    People should not be allowed to own exotic animals, let alone whole menageries of them. This is a tragic case. These animals should have been in the wild. Also, these trigger happy conservation officers should lose their jobs. I cannot fathom why they would not use tranquilizer guns instead of shotguns. These animals could have been re-homed in sanctuaries. It is simply a lack of compassion and will that led to the deaths of these helpless animals who did no wrong to anyone.