Last week, Terry Thompson made national news when he committed suicide shortly after releasing his personal menagerie of exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio. Police killed most of the animals and several others ate each other or were hit by cars. Now Thompson’s widow wants the six remaining live animals returned to her.
The animals — three leopards, two monkeys and a bear — are currently under quarantine at the Columbus Zoo by order of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Currently, Marian Thompson is unable to take the animals but she has the option to appeal and have a hearing in 30 days at which point she could be eligible to take the animals.
The animals are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in these situations. Would it be better for them to languish in a cage in a zoo to be mistreated and gawked at by zoo patrons for the rest of their lives? Or should they be sent back to languish in a cage on a private farm without the gawking but also without any professionally trained staff to make sure the animals are cared for in the event that someone, say, opens their cages and commits suicide?
Ohio has long been under fire from animal advocates for their lax exotic pet laws, and that criticism usually strengthens when a story about a human injured by an exotic pet makes national news. There were similar cries to ban or at least curtail exotic pets last year after one caretaker was killed by a bear and a woman was blinded by a chimpanzee.
This time at least people are also concerned about the animals themselves rather than just the safety of nearby humans. But it’s abundantly clear every time that a story like this makes the national news: exotic pets are bad for humans and bad for animals.
Ohio has enacted new laws in response to earlier outrages but none of those laws has ever gone so far as to outright ban the keeping of exotic animals as pets and that is the only way that this problem will ever be solved.
We will see tragedies like this as long as humans see value in animals insofar as they are amusing to look at, fun to play with, or confer some kind of luxury or wealth status on their caretakers. We have to break away from our paradigm of perceiving nature as only having value equal to the amount of use we can get out of it.
Whether these remaining animals are kept in a private zoo on Thompson’s farm or whether they will remain in a public zoo will likely make very little practical difference. The only responsible and ethical thing to do with these animals would be to release them either into the wild if that’s possible or at the very least to find a suitable sanctuary where they can be cared for in peace far away from any zoo cages, public or private.
Photo credit: OpenCage