Ohio task force recommends statewide ban on big cats, but a national solution is needed

Authorities survey the horrific scene in Zanesville Ohio. Photo: c. APLast week, following the recent incident in Zanesville, Ohio, where the owner of a backyard menagerie of big cats and other wild animals opened his cages before killing himself the task force formed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to study the problem released its recommendations for ensuring dangerous wild animals are better regulated in the future. 

To its credit, the task force recommended a statewide ban on the possession of dangerous wild animals, which is not surprising given that Ohio is one of the few states left with little to no regulation of exotic pets like tigers and other big cats.

However, as with any policy proposal, the devil is in the details.

Example: the task force recommended a ban on “casual ownership,” but didn’t define the term, only making clear that it wouldn’t include “zoos, circuses, and research facilities” or presumably those facilities licensed by the USDA to keep captive big cats and other dangerous exotic pets. 

Given the ease with which one can obtain such a license--about $40 bucks and a quick site visit--the exemptions probably wouldn’t decrease much the number of dangerous animals that are living in Ohio communities. 

It’s unclear whether Terry Thompson, the Zanesville enthusiast who set his animals free, had a USDA license to keep those animals, though it seems clear that he needed one because he was offering public exhibition of his “pets.” Supermodel and TV host Heidi Klum once posed with one of Thompson’s lion cubs. 

In this regard anyway, the task force recommendations would help, because owners of dangerous wild animals like Thompson would be regulated by the state, not just the feds.

Other states have reacted to incidents and tragedies involving big cats and other dangerous animals by enacting similar policies.  Following the death of 17-year-old Haley Hilderbrand, who was killed by a 550-pound Siberian tiger during a high-school photo shoot at a USDA licensed facility, Kansas enacted a ban on big cats as pets, yet in Kansas and nationwide, the number of big cats in private hands has only grown, along with the potential threat they pose to communities. 

Though state actions such as those recommended by the Ohio task force are definitely necessary, the ease with which disparate state and federal regulations regarding wild animal possession and trade can be easily circumvented.

This unfortunate reality, coupled with loopholes in federal policy allowing and even the promoting big cat breeding for commercial gain, make the recurrence of incidents like Zanesville not an “if” but a “when.”  This is a nationwide problem.  It’s time for a nationwide solution. 


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