Yesterday brought a bizarre and sad story from Zanesville, Ohio, where a man who owned a large number of exotic animals—including wolves, bears, and endangered tigers—apparently released his personal zoo before killing himself, unleashing chaos in his community and leading authorities to kill many of the escaped animals. Nearly 50 animals have been killed, including a rare Bengal tiger that proved too dangerous to simply tranquilize and capture. By the end of the day, criticism of Ohio’s lax exotic animal controls was already mounting. Could this incident have been avoided?
A number of experts say yes, and they’re urging more attention and resources for what they call a severe problem. A 2006 article in the Indiana Law Journal bemoans the gaps in federal exotic animal laws and argues that “largely inconsistent state laws fail to fill in the gaping holes left by federal law.” (Yesterday’s incident seems to verify that claim.) That article blames a powerful exotic animal lobby for the weak federal controls and warns that the ecological impact of this problem is still not fully understood. Even so, it is undoubtedly significant: A 2006 report in The Washington Post pointed out that exotic animals are brought into the United States in staggering numbers—about 650 million were legally imported from 2003 to 2006, and several million more were smuggled in—and the vast majority are subject to little or no screening for diseases. That creates a substantial risk of disease outbreak, to say nothing of environmental impact or risks to public safety. That may be why, in 2004, then-Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Steven Williams cited invasive species (many of which are former pets) as the country’s foremost environmental threat.