The Zanesville Massacre Could Happen in Tampa
…or Just About Anywhere else in Florida for That Matter.
At 5:30 a.m. on October 19, 2011, the phones at Big Cat Rescue began ringing with the news that Terry Thompson, a private owner and collector of exotic animals in Ohio, had released 56 of his lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, wolves and bears before committing suicide the night before.
As the watching world soon learned that day, Thompson had purposely cut the doors off his animals’ cages so they could not be returned to them. And because the perimeter fence around his property was a mere four- foot high cattle fence, and it was getting dark, the authorities who arrived on the scene were forced to shoot and kill all but six of the dangerous wild animals.
This senseless tragedy unfolded in Zanesville, Ohio, but it could just as easily have been in Tampa or any other city in Florida.
The reason is because there is a patchwork of laws across our country and a dire lack of funds to enforce them. All too often it takes a tragedy like the Zanesville massacre before the public finds out that crazy people and government agencies are playing Russian roulette with their lives.
Most people were shocked to learn that Thompson, a convicted criminal, could have a back yard full of the world’s most dangerous predators with no government oversight. Ohio had no state laws restricting such behavior. And Thompson did not have the USDA license he was required to possess in order to exhibit his exotic animals. Despite often being in the local news for exhibiting his animals at schools, he was never forced to comply.
USDA only requires that cages be big enough for an animal to stand up and turn around; there are no set standards for cage space, fence heights or cage construction materials. Depending on the inspector, a USDA licensed facility may be asked to have an eight-foot high perimeter fence. But an exotic animal facility in Dade City, Fla. that offers public swimming with tigers has a fence that is only three strands of wire; and not hot wire at that! Despite multiple citations, the facility has not yet been fined and continues to operate under the auspices of being “inspected and approved.”
The Florida Wildlife Commission boasts the most stringent wild animal possession laws, yet Florida leads the country with the most killings, maulings and escapes by dangerous wild animals. Having better standards than Ohio hasn’t done anything to minimize the danger to Floridians and the environment. Most people who don’t follow animal issues are aware that the Everglades are over run with giant non-indigenous snakes that are swallowing alligators and deer whole. These snakes, which quickly grow to 13 feet and over 100 pounds, have been found to have Florida panthers, bobcats and many species of endangered native wildlife in their bellies when captured. What most people probably don’t know is that the FWC is continuing to renew the permits of those who are not in compliance with their regulations and state laws.
In June 2007, Florida Governor Crist signed into law SB2766, a bill to regulate the possession of reptiles, but more importantly, included the requirement for a $10,000 bond to be posted by anyone exhibiting a Class I animal, which currently includes lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and cougars. The FWC thwarted that legislative mandate by changing their regulations to allow people to call their private collections “sanctuaries” and forego the bond requirement. Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin contacted every member of the Florida House and Senate in 2009 to let them know how their law had been circumvented and they almost unanimously agreed to close the loophole by amending the wording to say that all who “possess” (rather than “exhibit” as the 2007 law read) Class I animals must post the bond.
Perhaps the scariest comparison between the situation in Ohio and the situation here in Florida is that no matter what the law was that allowed private possession of dangerous wild animals, it was the actions of a mentally unstable person who set his animals loose on his unsuspecting neighbors. When you consider that it is usually this type of person who collects dangerous lions, tigers, bears, pythons and such in their back yard, the obvious conclusion is that the only way to prevent such disasters is to ban the private possession of wild animals.