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Exotic animal tragedy in Ohio

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is focusing on efforts to ban all private ownership of tigers. (Photo: Paul Mannix/File)

The recent tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio -- where 56 wild animals were let loose from the farm of a man previously convicted of animal cruelty — underscores the need to crack down on the private ownership of exotic animals.

Terry Thompson turned the animals loose before killing himself, instigating a 24-hour hunt ending in the deaths of nearly 50 animals. Six others — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo.

How did more than 50 exotic animals, including endangered Bengal tigers, lions, wolves, baboons, and bears, wind up in rural Ohio? It was completely legal for Thompson to own these animals and keep them on his farm, despite a history of run-ins with the law and conflicts with his neighbors. Over the years, he had been charged with animal cruelty, animal neglect, and allowing animals to roam.

Each state has different laws regarding the private ownership of wildlife. For example, it is illegal to own any wild animals in New York, while in Maine, ownership requires a permit. Ohio is one of fewer than ten states with no laws restricting or regulating the sale and ownership of exotic animals, and it has earned a reputation as the "Wild West" of the exotic animal pet trade.

In the wake of the Zanesville tragedy, several animal advocacy groups have called for stricter regulations or bans on wild animals as pets. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), for instance, is focusing on efforts to ban all private ownership of tigers.

Estimates vary as to the number of privately owned tigers in the U.S., but it may be twice as many are left in the wild. In Zanesville, 18 endangered Bengal tigers were among the animals killed. While estimates vary on how many Bengal tigers are left in the world, many say it is less than 3,000. In a statement, the WWF explained that in the absence of a comprehensive, federally regulated system, tigers in the U.S. are easy targets for the multimillion dollar international black market for tiger parts and can contribute to the demand for tiger products. Additional demand puts wild tigers at increased risk of poaching.

Tigers, like all wild animals, have no place in private homes. Keeping them as pets is selfish to these magnificent animals and irresponsible to the people who could be harmed if they escaped. Hopefully, the loss of animal life in Zanesville will lead to more legislation aimed at protecting exotic and endangered animals and help people realize that wild animals belong in the wild.

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