COMMENTARY | The Muskingum, Ohio, County Sheriff’s office began receiving calls late in the afternoon on Tuesday, Oct.18th, reporting exotic animals spotted along Interstate 70. Terry Thompson, 62, the owner of the farm near downtown, had owned hundreds of exotic animals including grizzly bears, wolves, lions, apes, and 18 tigers. According to reports, Thompson had let all the animals out of their cages before turning a gun on himself. While many of the animals stayed close to home, several of them quickly dispersed outside the fenced area of the farm and into the backyards of some of the neighbors.
As reported in USA Today, sheriff’s deputies shot several animals Tuesday night that had climbed the fence behind Fred Polk Sr.’s property. An African lion and mountain lion were shot from the back of a pickup truck, while a grizzly bear that charged the deputies was also taken down. All three animals were left where they fell as officials were under immense pressure to move on and contain the rest of the escaped exotics.
“The deputies did the right thing. They had no choice,” said Polk, who raises cattle and race horses on his 1,500 acres. “It was a time bomb waiting to happen.”
The biggest challenge facing officials was time. Dusk was starting to fall, and Sheriff Matt Lutz was not about to let dangerous animals roam the county overnight. When authorities reached the preserve, they found Thompson’s body in the driveway and animals milling all over the property. Officers were forced to shoot animals with sidearms, as none of the responding teams were equipped with any kind of tranquilizer equipment. Elsewhere, deputies were shooting animals from the interstate to prevent them from getting into subdivisions.
By Wednesday morning, the only animals still unaccounted for were one monkey and a wolf. All told, 49 animals were killed with only six remaining alive, including the apes found in pens in the house. Pictures of exotic animal carcasses flashed across the national news. The loss of any animal life in this manner seems so tragic and wasteful. The sheriff’s department has received harsh criticism from some for their purported “haste” in using deadly force against the animals, suggesting tranquilizers instead. Staff from the Columbus Zoo were called in try and assist officials, but the main concern was to prevent loss of human life. What kind of media upset would there have been if one of these animals had mauled a child?
Tranquilizers, as used to subdue large wild animals, are only useful in a small range of situations. If the shooter is able to get a clear shot, the drugs can take up to 15 minutes to take effect and that’s if the dosage is correct and the animal is not running on adrenaline. Tranquilizers were tried on one of the 300-pound tigers, but the cat quickly became aggressive, necessitating a lethal gun shot. Animals that have been darted generally take off for the closest cover, which in this case could have been someone’s barn or garage. There simply wasn’t the manpower to track down 30 large, drugged-up carnivores.
The fault for this entire scenario does not lie with the Sheriff’s department or any law enforcement. The blame lies with Thompson for letting the animals loose. Whatever his intent, he signed all his animals over to death the minute he opened those cage doors. More importantly, a tragedy like this was just waiting to happen in the state of Ohio, which has no laws governing the ownership of exotic pets. Until the issue of exotic pet ownership is addressed, another animals escape and mass death inevitable.