Welcome to friendly Zanesville, Ohio! Psst…keep an eye out for 500-pound wildcats.
Life in Zanesville is pretty tame today, but one day last fall it was a jungle. A man named Terry Thompson released a bunch of exotic pets, then committed suicide. Police officers killed 48 animals from Thompson’s menagerie, most of which were large, dangerous cats.
Earlier this week came news that the five remaining animals –a brown bear, a black leopard, a spotted leopard and two Celebes macaques – will be released to Thompson’s widow.
Latitude News talked to Ohioans in Dublin, not far from the Columbus Zoo, and asked if they thought the U.S. had tougher laws on exotic pet ownership than other countries.
Nationally, Ohio’s heretofore acceptance of dangerous pets isn’t all that exceptional. But globally, it’s off the charts – and so is the U.S. for that matter.
A global leader, in more ways than one
Most of the species of large cats kept as “pets” in the U.S. are not native to this country. It is very difficult – and illegal – to import the animals, so domestically bred cats supply the legal and illegal pet trade.
According to Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, 74 percent of all captive cat “incidents” happen in the U.S. To define “incident”: a big cat mauls or kills a person, or simply escapes – although there’s nothing simple about that.
Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, says the U.S. is way behind other Western nations in placing bans on owning these animals.
“In the UK,” Baskin says, “they outlawed owning big animals in the 1970s, so they avoided these problems.”
Exotic pets laws vary by state, but a U.S. Department of Agriculture loophole allows private residents to keep big cats as “exhibit” animals. A 2010 audit of USDA made an unsettling conclusion: of pet owners with four or fewer large, dangerous animals, 70 percent used their “exhibit” license to keep a pet.
If you study the map Baskin created of all the global cat incidents, there’s an obvious trend: so-called industrialized nations lead the pack. A bunch of incidents have occurred in Europe, but the U.S. outshines the rest – with the Sunshine State of Florida accounting for about 8% of global incidents.
One might assume the same problem exists in Africa, Asia and South America, but perhaps the record-keeping is not as detailed. Baskin balks at this suggestion.
Instead, she says that in countries home to wild, dangerous animals, people are less likely to see them as cute and cuddly.
“Those people understand that these are not pets,” she says. “I bet there are no pet tigers in India.”
China is another story.
And on his farm he had a …
This photo was taken during an undercover investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In an interview with Latitude News, IFAW’s campaigns manager, Paul Todd, said there are thousands of tigers on farms in China.
“We’ve even found advertisements in American Chinese-language newspapers looking for tiger parts,” says Todd.
In China, tigers are used for medicine and farmed like cattle – dangerous cattle. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), tiger derivatives – bones, blood, eyes, penises – are used to treat rheumatism, strengthen bones or arouse vigor. One could also dine on tiger meat and tiger wine, if one were wealthy and so inclined.
The IFAW report indicates that, for the past two decades, Chinese officials have been speaking out of both sides of their mouths. While helping find tiger alternatives for TCM and banning and significantly reducing the domestic tiger trade, the Chinese government has also allowed at least five tiger farms to operate, each with about 1,000 tigers.
The farms supply a fluctuating trade in tiger parts, and they’re open to tourists, who, according to the report, can participate in “re-wilding” shows
“After the tour bus driver…persuaded visitors to purchase a chicken to throw in the tiger enclosure, he repeatedly and excitedly emphasized that ‘the tigers will pluck the chicken’s feather first while it is still alive.’ … A sign erected by the performance site warns away people with high blood pressure and heart disease.”
Other than the obvious, there are reasons both countries may need to crack down on all types of tiger keeping. Tigers are endangered, and are among the thousands of species the U.S., China and 173 other countries have agreed to protect under CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
But Todd says China has refused to shut down its farms until the U.S. cracks down on domestic ownership of tigers. If that is the standard China has set, they might want to start finding homes for 5,000 tigers.
Back on the farm
Last week, when a few members of Congress were hanging out with staff on Capitol Hill, handling a few tiger cubs and a monkey, they probably didn’t realize they were violating a USDA guideline. The guideline implores the public to handle tigers only between the ages of eight weeks and 12 weeks. The cubs in Washington were only four weeks old. But, hey, that’s just a guideline, not a law.
The cuddle puddle on Capitol Hill might not last much longer. The Zanesville incident is poised to bring down state and federal hammers. Paul Todd is hopeful about a bill proposed last March that would prohibit the private possession and breeding of big cats.
Perhaps the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative has shamed Congress; more likely, some sensible representatives in the House would rather not see another Zanesville incident. Paul Todd says the ban is long overdue.
“The last thing anyone in the U.S. should have to worry about,” he says, “is their child being attacked by a tiger.”
In order of appearance, the voices you heard above belong to Charles Agin (38), Benjamin Diehl (31), Jane Doyle (43), Mike Obert (46), Grace Nguyen (42). Audio recorded by Cynthia Rosi.