In the U.S., owning wild animals has become alarmingly commonplace. Now some states are cracking down.
In many states, owning wild animals is an inalienable — and potentially lethal — right.
by Keith Elliot Greenberg
Terry Thompson was a Vietnam vet with an antiauthoritarian streak. Friends say he once flew his Cessna under the Y-Bridge in Zanesville, Ohio, and another time landed his ultralight on Interstate 77. He also kept a private zoo — 56 wild animals, including lions, grizzlies, and even leopards — on his 73-acre spread near town.
Last October, three weeks after finishing a one-year prison term on a federal firearms charge, and overwhelmed by tax and marital problems, 62-year-old Thompson released his animals and took his own life. Fearing a stampede, sheriff’s deputies put down 49 of the beasts, including a white tiger one officer says was attempting to consume Thompson’s corpse. The surviving animals were taken to the Columbus Zoo.
The media treated the Zanesville incident as the freak act of a deranged man. But the fact is that virtually anyone in this country — of sound mind or not — can buy and keep wild animals. Federal law restricts the interstate sale and transport of certain big cats, but no national laws exist regarding the private ownership of exotic pets. That is left to the states, where laws vary widely. Eight of them — Ohio, Alabama, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — have virtually no laws regulating the possession of these animals. And though 21 states ban the ownership of wolves, bears, reptiles, wildcats, and most “nonhuman primates” (such as chimps and gorillas), the laws can be difficult to enforce, particularly in rural areas.
Americans own 5,000 to 7,000 tigers as pets, compared with just 3,200 that exist in the wild. According to Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, a nonprofit opposed to wild-animal possession, “There are more tigers in captivity in Texas than are wild in India.”
The presence of so many undomesticated animals in American homes hasn’t been without consequence. Since 1990, Born Free has confirmed some 1,600 injuries, deaths, and other incidents in the U.S. involving captive wildlife. Just three days before Zanesville, a four-year-old boy in Texas was mauled by his aunt’s mountain lion. Ohio has been particularly bad: In August 2010, a black bear killed its caretaker in Columbia Station. A year later, an 80-year-old man was gravely injured after a kangaroo attacked him at a family-run animal farm in Green Camp.
While these creatures might be tough to find at PetSmart, they can be acquired with relative ease online. Exoticanimalsforsale.net recently posted an ad from “Daniel” in Florida, who wanted to sell a two-toed sloth for $3,750. He also had armadillos to move ($150 each), despite conceding that they are the only animals besides humans that carry leprosy. “Blake” in Alabama, meanwhile, was asking $5,000 for a zebra: “Raised on the bottle, very gentle, comes to you anywhere.” The sources of this bounty are varied, but most of the animals come from domestic breeders and, occasionally, small zoos looking to liquidate their inventory.
In Ohio, people like Thompson tend to buy their animals at auctions held on private farms, according to James Galvin, a retired veterinarian who owns two 375-pound pet tigers, Boomer and Dudley. Since purchasing the cubs in 2010, Galvin has been working to create an animal sanctuary on his 120-acre farm, weaving his way through Ohio’s secretive network of owners and breeders.
Although the Thompson tragedy prompted a proposal in the state legislature to ban the acquisition of exotic pets, Galvin calls opposition to private ownership naive. Zoos lack the space and resources to accommodate such animals, he says, and repopulating the creatures’ native habitats is an ineffective stab at conservation. “It’s wonderful to say, ‘Let’s get them back into the wild,’ but between poaching and encroachment, they’re never going to thrive there again.”
Galvin says the federal government should implement uniform laws dictating everything from fencing requirements to the amount of shade the animals receive. But it remains difficult to combat the twisted psychology of exotic-pet owners like Thompson — who reportedly slept with his lions and tigers — with legislation. “For some people, it’s a grotesque version of parenthood,” says Born Free’s Roberts. “Others just want a badass pet as a sign of their machismo. First it’s a Doberman, then a pit bull, then a tiger.” Until mental-health evaluations become a prerequisite for ownership, it might be best to keep your eyes peeled for roaming beasts in your neighborhood.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.