A terrifying incident in 2011 caused one state to toughen restrictions

In the late afternoon of October 18, 2011, 62-year-old Terry Thompson opened the cage doors that held his private menagerie of lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other exotic animals on his farm in Zanesville, Ohio farm and set them free. He then turned a gun on himself.

Reports of wild animals running loose quickly started pouring into Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz’s office. He didn’t know how many animals Thompson kept on the farm or how much of a head start they had. But he did know the sun was quickly setting.

Lutz immediately gave the order to his deputies: Put down any animal off the property or close to leaving the property. “There is no way we could have those types of animals loose in our neighborhoods,” Lutz said.

About 10 deputies from the SWAT team rode in the back of two pickup trucks, while another 10 patrolled the perimeter. Officers killed 49 animals: 18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, one baboon and two wolves.

Almost miraculously, no one—not Lutz’s staff or any member of the community—was harmed.

The bizarre, surreal event made international headlines and cast a bright spotlight on Ohio’s lack of laws covering the private ownership exotic animals.

Six years later, Ohio is emerging as a model on exotic animal regulations. With the image of lions and bears preying on unsuspecting citizens still fresh in their minds, state officials quickly seized on the Zanesville incident to enact strict regulations on the private ownership of dangerous wild animals and restricted snakes.

As a result of the law signed by Governor John Kasich in June 2012, owners are required to register and microchip their animals along with meeting strict standards on housing, training, transportation, insurance and enclosures. The law prohibits the acquisition of more animals (except for certain species) and requires the surrender or seizure of animals from owners who fail to meet the standards.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture spent more than $3 million to build a 20,000-square-foot temporary animal holding facility east of Columbus, and has spent more than $3.6 million to house, feed, transport and care for the animals housed in the facility.

“We never give out the exact number or types of animals we have in the facility just for security purposes,” said Dr. Melissa Simmerman, an assistant state veterinarian.

The law does not prohibit private ownership, but those who keep exotic animals on their property must follow the rules.

“I think it was a needed law. Before this law went into effect Ohio was one of the few states left in the country that had no dangerous wild animal-type regulations. And I think we have come quite a ways since then and I think that’s good—not only for public safety but also for the health, well-being and safety of the animals,” said Simmerman.

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