Mike Stapleton shares a playful moment with Shur-Kahn, a 580-pound Siberian Tiger, in this 2008 photo made at the Stapleton compound near Waldo. Stapleton provides a refuge for unwanted cats and bears raised as pets, which he says is a growing problem in Ohio. / The Marion Star/James Miller
The owner of Paws and Claws Animal Sanctuary near Waldo doesn’t want to be judged by the actions of Terry Thompson, the Muskingum County man who turned loose 56 wild animals before taking his own life Tuesday.
Mike Stapleton got into the sanctuary business by accident. In 2001, he attended an animal auction with his daughter Tabitha, who talked him into buying a bear cub for a pet. It wasn’t long until he realized what he got into.
“People go to these auctions and buy a tiger cub because they are cute,” Stapleton said.
“They don’t realize that the animal will reach 800 or 900 pounds. They become intimidated by them, and they become a burden.”
“Even though these animals are captive born and hand-raised, you never know when he might become a tiger again,” Stapleton said.
“I think most people start with good intentions. But (the animals) become burdens real fast. And the animal always pays the price,” he said.
“In the end, it’s never any good for the animal.”
Stapleton had tried to raise a herd of deer as a commercial venture, but it didn’t pan out. Then, he said, he had a change of heart.
“I realized I didn’t want to exploit these animals.”
In 2003, Stapleton was approached by someone looking for a home for a bear. It had been raised as a pet, but had outgrown his welcome. Stapleton accepted the animal and started his own nonprofit animal rescue organization.
Stapleton declined to say how many animals he has at his compound, but he cares for adult tigers and bears, most of them donated by people who purchased them as cubs.
After the tragedy in Muskingum County, where sheriff’s deputies shot 48 of the freed animals, Stapleton is afraid sanctuaries like his could be shut down in a climate of fear and outrage. But he agrees it’s time for some regulation.
Stapleton thinks the executive order on exotic animals negotiated by former Gov. Ted Strickland went too far, because it banned existing operations like his from accepting more animals. Stapleton said the number of exotic animals in private hands means there will be a continuing need for what he calls legitimate sanctuaries. Zoos don’t have the staff or the space for all the exotics in private hands, Stapleton said.
He added that most big cats sold privately are not genetically pure, making them unsuitable for conservation breeding.
“If we tell private owners they must surrender their animals, who will they surrender them to?” Stapleton asked.
“I think Jack Hanna needs to take a step back, and take a breath,” Stapleton said.
“I’m sure he’s angry about what he has seen out there. I’m angry, too. I don’t want just any Joe having a tiger on his property, either.”
Stapleton said the U.S. Department of Agriculture should set standards and regulate operators as they do for livestock operations. Stapleton said his operation is not currently up to USDA standards, but he is working toward that end.
Stapleton said it’s time to regulate Ohio’s animal auctions as well. He thinks only USDA-accredited operators should be able to buy what he calls the super exotics, like lions, tigers and bears.
“They can come here and see my facility is safe and well-kept. I’m not a breeder, a seller or an exhibitor,” Stapleton said.
“I’m afraid that if they shut down legitimate sanctuaries, people will just go underground with their operations, or worse, just turn their animals loose so they won’t get caught with them.”
Stapleton said he has talked to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office about how to respond should one of his animals get loose.
“I’ve got no problem with the way the deputies handled the situation in Muskingum County,” Stapleton said.
“My hat’s off to them (the deputies). Nobody got hurt,” he said. “I would put my animals down myself to avoid the widespread panic. It would be hard, but I’d do it. You have to put the public safety first.
“What Terry Thompson did was criminal,” Stapleton said. “He was clearly depressed. But I know that I can be a responsible owner. I’m capable of giving them the care they need,” he said.
“Just don’t judge me by what he did.”
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