If it Can Kill You, It Shouldn’t be a Pet

Exotic pet debate should be about public safety

By Rusty Pate

Last year, a Zanesville man named Terry Thompson released 56 exotic animals from his farm before killing himself. Police were forced to kill 49 of the animals, with one presumed eaten and another dying after being captured. The incident resulted in Ohio passing a law recently which significantly alters the state’s former lax policy on private ownership of such animals.

Before I get too far, I should stress that I’m not against private ownership of exotic animals per se. I believe if one has the proper facilities and means, there is no problem with owning a lion, tiger or bear. If you can afford food, veterinary services and upkeep of enclosures, the following statement doesn’t apply to you.

People should not own pets that can kill them.

In fact, I don’t even see how this is up for debate. I understand that our political culture takes any issue that can be construed as an attack on personal liberty as an attempt by the government to control our every action. However, my neighbor owning a mountain lion has nothing to do with liberty and everything to do with public safety.

I became disturbed about this topic after watching the documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room.” The film follows Oakwood public servant Tim Harrison in his travels dealing with the problems that arise from private ownership of these animals. Harrison has spent 40 years of his life working in the field.

It seems Ohio is a hotbed for exotic animal ownership because prior to the Zanesville tragedy, Ohio had very lenient laws pertaining to the subject. Let that sink in. If an individual bought a tiger or poisonous snake, they were not required to register it, get tags for it or inform anyone in the community about the presence of these animals.

Harrison said the rise in popularity of television shows that deal with these animals is what lures people into believing they can be pets.

“Every one of them says ‘I saw a show on Animal Planet’ or ‘I thought I could do it because I saw a show on the Discovery Channel,’” Harrison said.

When “The Crocodile Hunter” became popular in the early 1990s, Harrison saw an explosion of local instances of wannabe Steve Irwins.

“I had 19 alligators that were either loose or attacked their owners in the Dayton area,” Harrison said. “I had 10 alligators in the Cincinnati area. That was all in one year, and every one of them was a ‘Crocodile Hunter’ fan.”

What people don’t realize about many of the “nature” shows is that the animals are often declawed or sedated. Just as with any reality television, things are not always what they appear.

Again, I should stress: this really has nothing to do with rights. The question isn’t “Can I buy an exotic animal?” The question is “Should I buy an exotic animal?”

Personal liberty should never trump public safety. When someone buys a potentially deadly animal, they not only bring it into their home or personal property – they bring it into communities and neighborhoods. They never consider the worst-case scenarios. If the animal escapes or attacks the owner, it then becomes a problem for local authorities. Police, firefighters or EMTs must now respond to a situation they may not be trained to deal with.

I’m all for personal liberty, but any case has a line that should not be crossed. I’m a staunch believer in the right to bear arms, but I don’t believe that means a private citizen should be able to own a tank. There are certain instances where the individual’s right encroaches on the safety of the community, and when that happens, public safety should take precedent.

I don’t mean to demonize the people who own these animals. I understand the attachment they feel when they raise a baby lion from a cub. All animals are adorable as babies. The problem is, they go from cute little animals to 500-pound, sexual mature adults in a matter of a couple years. The animal that once was held in the palm of a hand suddenly is eating voracious amounts of food and leaving messes by the shovel full.

Beyond the public safety concerns, practicality becomes an issue. These are not pets that have been domesticated, they are wild animals not meant for the suburbs. A lion belongs in the Serengeti, lording over a vast terrain – not locked up in some pen.

The bad guys are not the owners, but the breeders and sellers. They concern themselves only with making money from these animals and often know little about proper breeding practices. An argument often used goes something like this: these animals are endangered and breeding them helps keep the species alive.

Harrison said this is not true. The animals are basically mutts, and can develop life-threatening deformities.  One lion’s spine grew into its skull, killing the animal. Another’s spine did not fully grow and the animal was forced to drag its hind legs behind it. These are not the characteristics of a full bred animal and they do nothing to sustain any species.

I understand concerns about personal liberty and there are arguments to be made for the government infringing on individual rights. However, laws which require registering dangerous animals and carrying insurance in case the unthinkable happens do not constitute an overstep of government power.

It just seems like common sense.

Reach DCP intern and freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@daytoncitypaper.com

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