On January 1st 2014 Ohio’s Dangerous Wild Animal Act restricting the ability of private individuals to “acquire, buy, sell, trade, or transfer possession or ownership” of a variety of wild or exotic species will go into full effect. While this law may not be perfect and is more focused on public safety than the animals’ wellbeing or challenging the property status of animals, it does take a much needed step in a state where laws regarding the exotic and wild animal trade are so loose that Ohio Governor John Kasich likened to the situation to the “wild wild west”. For years activists had been working on pushing such restrictions in Ohio making only a little headway with a temporary ban that Gov. Kasich let expire. That is until a major tragedy shook up the state and put the national spotlight on the wild and exotic animal trade.
Sometime in the evening of October 18, 2011 Zanesville, OH resident Terry Thompson took his own life with a gunshot to the head but not before releasing that majority of the more than 50 exotic and wild animals including big cats, bears, wolves and primates that he kept on his land. Terry had recently been released from a year in prison on federal gun charges and was reportedly “distraught” over the prospect of his impending court ordered home confinement. By the time Terry got out of prison he was feeling overwhelmed with the situation on his farm. Sources close to Terry also reported that he was upset over marital issues and may have believed his wife was cheating on him. Whatever Thompson’s reasons, the way he took his life ended in more than just tragedy for himself.
Police had made dozens of visits to Thompson’s place over the years¹ for the odd loose animal or other violations but when they responded to a call about a bear and lion on the loose at the Thompson farm they had no idea what they would find. As they arrived shortly before dark they attempted to asses and contain the situation, but they soon found themselves overwhelmed. It was not just a single bear and lion on the prowl, it appeared as if Thompson’s entire menagerie of over 50 animals was on the loose. Making matters worse it appeared that Terry had cut the fences of at least a few of the cages making them useless. With little daylight left and little ability to tranquilize the animals (at least one attempt failed) the Sheriff’s Department made the decision to shoot to kill. While some of the deaths may have been avoided, it was a decision later defended by wild animal experts as the only realistic option. I will not go into the gory details here (which you can read for yourself), but in the end 18 tigers, 17 African lions, 6 black bears, 2 grizzles, 3 mountain lions, 2 wolves, and 1 baboon lay dead (1 macaque was missing and presumed by police to be eaten by one of the big cats). Only 3 leopards², 2 primates, and a grizzly bear survived the incident and were later returned to Thompson’s wife Marian.
Activists and lawmakers were spurred into action following the Zanesville tragedy proposing ways to prevent such an incident from happening again. The result was the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act. While definitely not going as far as some animal advocates wanted, this act was welcomed by many. But the act has opposition as well. As one can guess the most vocal opponents are exotic animal owners themselves. Leading the charge is Joe “Exotic” Schreibvogel, president of the United States Zoological Association³, who traveled to Ohio to fight against the legislation. For Schreibvogel the Dangerous Wild Animal Act was not just a simple case government over-reach nor was Zanesville the tragedy it was reported to be. In Schreibvogel’s mind Zanesville was a “setup” and Thompson was murdered to further a 25 year conspiracy between animal advocates and state officials to take away the constitutional right to own a lion or tiger. As with many conspiracy theories, this one is based mainly on anomaly hunting and attempting to poke holes in the official story. Writer Vince Grzegorek documents Schreibvogel’s claims in his article Exotic Theories,
Among his concerns: the cages had been cut, not opened with keys; a worker on site was only gone for a little over an hour, not long enough for events to occur as authorities describe them; chicken blood was found around Thompson’s body, but no bucket used to carry the chicken blood was found; the gun Thompson used to shoot himself had been bought from a sheriff’s deputy, but no one has been prosecuted for selling Thompson the gun; and leopards were left in their cages, something only someone with keen knowledge of animals and leopards’ reputation as being the most dangerous big cats would know.
A quick read over the official police reports however demonstrates these claims to generally be misrepresentations or non sequiturs. But that hasn’t stopped others from picking up the idea and running with it. Chris Heath wrote in his National Magazine Award Winning piece on Zanesville,
As for what actually happened on that day in October, I hear all kinds of theories, though most of them sound recklessly far-fetched. Thompson was involved with bad people and had fallen out with them. He was caught up in dangerously illegal black-market animal sales, dead or alive. (Tigers are reputedly worth as much as $20,000 dead when their body parts are illegally sold off.) Drug smuggling. Secret plane trips. The Mexican cartel. His death was part of a twenty-five-year plot to rid America of exotic animals. He was actually found with a pillowcase over his head and a gunshot wound to his stomach. Nearly all of the exotic-animal owners I speak with, deeply skeptical of the official account, identify the same “true” culprit: animal-rights activists.
Perhaps one of these wild hypotheses are correct. Maybe animal rights activists did murder Terry Thompson. But I highly doubt it. I see little evidence to support these alternate explanations and little reason to believe that the tragedy in Zanesville was the result of anything but an emotionally distraught animal collector who chose to go out in a selfish and sensational way. While it may be tempting to blame to death of the animals on the officers who shot them, the situation they faced was one they were wholly unprepared for and they acted in what they believed to be the most rational manner. In the end the ones responsible were Terry Thompson and the society that allowed such a man to own these animals.
If you are interested in learning more about the exotic animal trade please watch The Elephant in the Living Room.
1. “Since 2004, there had been at least three dozen complaints about Thompson’s animals on the loose: a giraffe grazing by a highway, a monkey in a tree. Typically, Thompson was fined $75. He’d also faced more serious charges of animal mistreatment.” – source
2. One of the leopards later died when a cage door fell on its neck at the Columbus Zoo
3. An organization founded by Schreibvogel in 2008 as an alternative for exotic animal keepers who do not wish to or can not qualify for membership with either the American Zoo Association or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.