Calls to ban exotic animals renewed

Policy criticized after man releases 56 animals, then kills himself.

COLUMBUS — Critics urged state officials to impose emergency rules on exotic animal ownership after one owner released dangerous wild animals from his rural sanctuary and then killed himself, paralyzing parts of Muskingum County on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Law enforcement authorities said Terry Thompson, 62, apparently opened the animal cage doors holding lions, tigers, bears and wolves and then shot himself. Deputies tracked and killed 49 animals with high-powered rifles and sidearms. School was canceled so children could be kept at home and residents hid behind closed doors. Only one animal, a monkey, remained loose Wednesday evening.

Despite the call for immediate action, state officials said they’ll stay on track to develop new regulations by year’s end. Former Gov. Ted Strickland signed an executive order that restricted ownership of exotics and banned the sale and import of the dangerous wild animals. But Gov. John Kasich let the order expire in April and convened a task force to review the situation.

Strickland’s order grandfathered existing exotic animal owners, provided they registered the animals and did not have an animal abuse conviction. The order included “big cats, bears, primates, large constricting and venomous snakes and alligators and crocodiles.”

Thompson, whose property is near Zanesville, had been convicted of animal cruelty in 2005, and would have had his animals removed by May 1 if the emergency order had not expired, the Humane Society said. There was a history of complaints about animals running loose, authorities said.

Animals shot dead included 18 tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, one baboon and two wolves. Three leopards and a few monkeys survived, said Tim Harrison, the Springboro-based animal rescue expert who called the incident the worst of its type in North America. “People have dangerous animals that shouldn’t have them in the first place,” he said following a day helping with the incident.

The Humane Society said that data collected from news reports and government documents indicate Ohio ranks fourth among the states in dangerous incidents involving big cats, bears and primates. Since 1990, at least 29 people in Ohio, including eight children, suffered injuries and one person was killed.

“Every month brings a new, bizarre, almost surreal incident involving privately held dangerous wild animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States. “Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions. It’s time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end.”

Sean Trimbach of Medway operates a federally licensed exotic animal breeding facility. He keeps a Syrian brown bear, red foxes, an African serval cat and exotic pheasants on his 16-acre property.

“It’s terrible. He killed himself and before he did that, he tried to ruin the reputations of good animal keepers. It’s terrible it happened. I am catching flack as an animal keeper. No way this is happening at my place. It will cause headaches for those of us doing it right.”

The Associated Press and The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.

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