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Ohio State Leaders Reflect On Exotic Animal Incident

The story is horrific – about four dozen bears, lions, tigers, and wolves (who were let out of their cages at a private residence near Zanesville were on the loose) posing a threat to humans. Schools cancelled classes and people who live in that Eastern Ohio area were asked to stay inside, or be very cautious when going outside. It sounds like a nightmare. In fact, Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo says it was worse than that.

"This is like not just a nightmare but it’s like Noah’s ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio."

The Muskingum County Sheriff, Matt Lutz says most of the animals were killed by law enforcement officials, and he doesn’t regret that decision.

"Obviously public safety was my number one concern. I gave the order on the way there that if animals looked like they were going out, they were going down. We could not have animals running loose in this county. We were not going to have that."

Staff members from the Columbus Zoo tried to hunt down and tranquilize the animals but, in the end, Lutz says most of the animals that were on the loose were killed.

It’s a decision the Zoo’s Hanna supports.

"The sheriff did the right thing. I know we have animal rights things giving me threatening calls, saying Jack Hanna’s saying this? What was he to do at night time with tigers and leopards going out there?"

Hanna is turning the conversation to what can be done to prevent something like this from happening again. That’s a point on which Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States agrees.

"How bad does it have to get to have or how lax are your rules to allow a convicted animal abuser or convicted felon to have these on his private home?"

Pacelle says animal cruelty convictions would have prevented the owner of these animals from having these animals in the first place if current Governor John Kasich had kept an executive order banning the sale or transfer of exotic animals that was issued by former Governor Ted Strickland.

"This man, Mr. Thompson, who was found dead at the scene at this home at the area around Zanesville would not have been allowed to have those animals. If that rule had been in place, this incident, in all likelihood, would never have happened."

Not so fast, says Bill Damshroder, an attorney for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources who says there was good reason Governor Kasich didn’t keep that order in place.

"We recommended to the Governor’s office through DNR that the executive order/administrative rule be allowed to expire because we had no legal authority to enforce an emergency administrative rule that exceeded the scopt of our revised code provisions for the dvision of wildlife."

And Damshroder says even if that rule had been kept in place, this could have happened.

"It would not have prevented this action because we had no way to enforce the administrative rule."

Pacelle sees it differently.

"There was a clear emergency authority related to public health and I think that when you have a situation where schools are being shut down because grizzly bears are roaming around a community, that provides all of the evidence you need that an emergency rule is warranted."

Regardless of what might have been, the debate moving forward is what should be. Scott Zoty with the Department of Natural Resources is moving forward with a task force that’s set to come out with recommendations soon for how to best deal with exotic animals in Ohio. That policy will look at who will be allowed to own the exotic animals and the conditions under which that ownership will be permitted. That’s a goal that Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo embraces.

"And I’ll do everything I can over my dead body to put these people out of business, to shut these auctions down, but also to keep these people that breed these animals that are the good breeders we need."