Actress, animal activist wants federal law banning the breeding of exotic cats
As Ohio officials work to ensure nothing like the exotic animal release near Zanesville ever happens again, a different effort is playing out on a national level.
One month ago today, Terry Thompson released 56 animals from his property — including lions, bears, tigers and wolves — before committing suicide. The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office killed 48 of the animals to prevent them from escaping and harming residents. Two others are thought to have been killed by other animals.
The incident captured worldwide attention. Public outcry about the shootings put the state on a fast track to enacting legislation to prevent any future events. Gov. John Kasich and an appointed task force are working toward a Nov. 30 deadline to make recommendations to the state legislature.
On the federal level, animal activist and actress Tippi Hedren is determined to get Congress to pass the Federal Ban on Breeding Exotic Felines for Personal Possession Act, which she co-authored.
“I was so angry when I first heard what happened at the Thompson farm,” Hedren said. “There is not one good thing about having a wild animal in captivity. They should be born free and should be able to live free.”
Hedren does not want USDA-licensed or certified breeders, dealers or exhibitors to be exempt from the bill.
“This is a huge business where people are making millions and millions of dollars,” Hedren said.
Passion for change
Hedren is best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and being the mother of actress Melanie Griffith. Since 1971, she’s been dealing with big cats. She is president and director emeritus of The Roar Foundation, which she founded in 1983. The nonprofit organization supports The Shambala Preserve, outside Santa Clarita in southern California, which rescues and gives sanctuary to exotic animals.
“I know it sounds like I’m cutting my own throat,” Hedren said. “But in reality, there is nothing you can give a wild animal in captivity that they need except medical care. It’s vital that we get this bill passed to ensure the insanity like what happened in Zanesville never happens again.”
The new bill will be even stronger in language than the current law Hedren supported. The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which stops the interstate trafficking of big cats to be sold as pets or for financial gain, was signed by former President George W. Bush in December 2003.
That bill did not keep facilities from being able to breed the big cats, Hedren said. In states such as Ohio, it remained legal for private owners to sell them within the state.
Hedren thinks the shortage of state and federal wildlife inspectors has made it impossible to eliminate the black market sale of these animals.
While the new bill has been stalled because of language, Hedren said she refuses to omit the circus industry from the bill, and she says she will fight the rest of her life to get it passed.
A public safety issue
Tim Harrison, a retired Ohio police officer and firefighter, has dealt with exotic animal issues for years.
He is the director for Outreach for Animals Inc., a nonprofit group that helps rescue exotic animals and finds new homes for them with preserves such as Hedren’s.
Harrison also was a contributor and showcased in the film “The Elephant in the Living Room” which won the Genesis Award given out by the Humane Society of the United States. Several exotic animal owners from Ohio are featured in the film.
“This is always a sad situation,” Harrison said. “When private people purchase an exotic animal like a lion or tiger, they are signing a death warrant for either themselves or the animal.”
The minute Harrison heard of the animals at the Thompson farm, he said he got in his car and drove to Zanesville.
“I drove around the perimeter of the area and offered my assistance,” Harrison said. “I never really met Terry, but I knew who he was and what he may have had. That was a really sad situation. I was hoping that we would be able to capture some of the animals, but that didn’t work out.”
Harrison agrees with Hedren: private individuals don’t need to own exotic animals and laws need to be strict.
“This is a public safety issue,” Hedren said. “I know of 575 people in the past eight years that have either been maimed or killed by an exotic feline. No one in their right mind would let their child or grandchild play or go in with a big cat.”
State, federal laws
State Sen. Troy Balderson, who sits on the governor’s task force, said he wants to pass laws on the state level and didn’t want to comment on any federal proposals. The Zanesville Republican said he’s not interested in banning everyone from owning exotic animals.
He said he has traveled to Blacklick and Stark County to visit animal preserves.
“They’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t know that we want to shut them down,” Balderson said. “I don’t want to pass laws on emotion. I think this can be done in stages.”
Balderson did say an Ohio law should encompass circuses, like Hedren is supporting.
“But we also have to remember that we have those type of enterprises traveling through Ohio to other states, so we have to be careful,” Balderson said.
Hedren said cities in California have passed laws banning circuses because of the treatment of animals. The circuses have to go around those cities when traveling.
“These guys in government are going to have to get stringent,” Hedren said. “It’s the government’s fault this problem exists. The government should take care of it.”
Balderson said he is hoping the task force, which last met Oct. 31, will have recommendations in the next couple of weeks.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz, who gave the order to kill the animals, sat in on one of the task force’s meetings.
Lutz said he thinks a state law is long overdue, but he also is hesitant to discuss a federal bill.
“I don’t think I’m completely qualified to say who can or can’t own one of these animals,” Lutz said. “My major objective is to make sure this never happens again. There has to be restrictions and guidelines.”
Lutz said his one concern regarding a federal law is if it would prohibit a state law.
“What I do know is that it wasn’t enough to have fences and pens for a mad man to cut those fences and pens and let those animals out,” Lutz said.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlumutter, D-Colo., a co-sponsor of the federal bill Hedren wants passed, said he agrees with the bill because of his concern with the humane treatment of exotic animals and the cost of providing for their well-being.
“Particularly when they are cast aside by unaccredited organizations,” Perlumutter said.
State Rep. Brian Hill, who represents Muskingum and Coshocton counties, said he not only wants Ohio to pass a bill regulating the breeding and sale of exotic animals, but he thinks the bill Hedren supports is just as important.
“I think this is not just a state issue,” Hill said. “It’s a national issue that’s not going away. Another issue we need to look at is what happens if we start putting restrictions and issuing permits and the owners of these animals can’t afford it. Who is going to take these animals?”
Hedren said there are facilities throughout the U.S., but finding homes can be a challenge.
“We’re usually full,” Hedren said. “We do have room for two cats, but that’s not a lot of space if you think someone has 20 cats they need to find a home for.”
Harrison and Hedren said it’s unknown how many people own exotic animals. But through research, Harrison said he knows of at least 3,400 tigers in Texas alone.
Hill said he has heard of at least 40 private owners in Ohio, but thinks there are hundreds if not thousands of exotic animals in the state.
“We just don’t have any real way of knowing unless they get licenses and permits,” Harrison said.
Hedren doesn’t have a private farm filled with exotic animals like Thompson did. The Shambala Preserve is a sanctuary where there can’t be any breeding, buying, selling and no commercial use. A sanctuary has to be located outside city limits, must provide adequate veterinary care, proper permitting and licensing and there must be a financial plan in place in case of an emergency so the facility doesn’t become part of the problem.
Harrison and Hedren know how dangerous large, wild animals can be. Hedren has been attacked by cats she has raised and she said her daughter, Melanie Griffith, also has been attacked.
“They are not your best friends,” Hedren said. “No matter what you hope, they are wild and react that way. It can happen in the split second.”
Harrison lost a close friend from a snake bite and knows the danger in thinking a wild animal can be treated as a pet.
“Tigers just want to be tigers,” Harrison said. “But people don’t think that far ahead when they buy them as cute little babies. They don’t understand a tiger’s natural instinct is to kill. And when a wild animal feels pushed into a corner, they’ll fight their way out.”