Escaped 'Exotic' Animals Highlight Flaws in Wildlife Protection Laws

Sumatran Tiger
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is named so because it can only be found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. There are about 400 to 500 of the tigers left, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tigers are the world's largest cat, and the Sumatran tiger is smallest of all living tiger subspecies. (Image credit: Jan Pokorný | Dreamstime)

This week's release and death of more than 50 so-called "exotic" animals near Zanesville, Ohio, is a tragic reminder that the laws protecting wildlife in the U.S. are full of loopholes that endanger not only the animals themselves but also people.

One of those loopholes could actually be closed soon. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed doing away with an exemption in the Captive-bred Wildlife Registration Program that currently allows individuals to own "generic" tigers (any tiger, usually cross-breeds, that can't be identified as from the Bengal, Sumatran, Siberian/Amur or Indochinese subspecies and are therefore genetically useless for conservation purposes). If the new rule passes, owners of all of these tigers—the USFWS estimates there could be 5,000 or more of these animals in the U.S. alone, significantly more full-breed tigers than remain in the wild—would be required to register the animals with the government. Owners would need permits of authorizations to sell the tigers across state lines, to harm them or to kill them. (You can read more about this proposed rule change and find out how to comment on it here.)

By the way, estimates of how many tigers are in private ownership in the U.S. are highly controversial. Some environmental groups say there may be as many as 10,000. Last month, the Feline Conservation Foundation released a survey which counted 2,884 tigers in zoos, nature centers and sanctuaries, but this obviously does not include much of the the hidden market that fed people like Zanesville’s Terry Thompson, although they did know about him.

While all tigers and lions are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the ESA does not regulate private ownership of these or any other species or sales within a state's borders. And once an animal has been sold, it can easily be transported (legally or otherwise) across state lines.

This is an even bigger loophole, and it ties directly to the tragedy in Zanesville. Each state in the U.S. has different laws regarding the ownership of exotic animals. In New York, home of Scientific American, it is illegal for a person to own any wild animal (not that this stops people—don’t forget the famous case of a Harlem man who housed a tiger in his apartment). In Maine, where I live, a person may possess a wild animal after obtaining a permit. In Ohio—one of the most lax states in the union regarding exotics—there are no laws banning or restricting the ownership of wild animals. The only restriction is that non-domesticated animals brought into the state must carry an entry permit and a certificate of health. (The non-profit Born Free USA has a run-down of all 50 state exotic animal laws.)

According to Ohio's NBC 4, the only laws governing exotic animals in the state regulate breeders and exhibitors, such as zoos or sanctuaries. Those facilities must maintain heath certificates and veterinary inspections for their animals.

This lack of state laws protecting wildlife and exotic animals results in a situation where many states, but especially Ohio, become havens for exotic animal auctions where animals (many of them being endangered species) to private collectors and hunting ranches. See the video below for more information on this unethical market.

One such auction is the triennial Mid Ohio Alternative Animal and Bird Sale, the most recent of which was held on September 16. While no big cats or bears were reportedly for sale at this particular event, the event's Web page does note that other species would be available. (The event’s only restriction for buyers: "A USDA licence [sic] will be required when purchasing certain primates (Baboons, Chimpanzees, Gorrillas [sic], and Orangutans.")

Following the tragic events in Zanesville, many advocates for humane treatment of animals are calling for new laws to end these auctions. "We have some animal auctions in Ohio that have to be shut down. Shut down. And we have to have strict permitting process here," said TV icon Jack Hanna, director emeritus of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The Web site is running an online petition to ban the sale and ownership of exotics in Ohio.

In several TV appearances during the past 24 hours, Hanna said that any new laws would not affect legitimate breeding facilities, which are a vital part of the conservation process and important partners for zoos and animal sanctuaries.

In a public statement, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, decried Ohio’s lack of regulations for the dangers they pose to humans: "In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions."

The Born Free USA database of exotic animal incidents lists 1,599 animal attacks on humans since 1990, including 75 deaths.

(It's worth noting that the previous governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, tried to change at least a tiny portion of these laws. Just before he left office, he issued an executive order that would have prevented people convicted of animal cruelty—such as Terry Thompson—from owning exotic animals. That order was allowed to expire in April under current Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)

In the face of Zanesville, many people ask, is there a conservation value in private ownership of wildlife and endangered species? The answer, simply, is no. Private citizens are not equipped or trained to ensure the health of wild and exotic animals, to breed them in a manner that ensures species' long-term survival, or to keep them safely separated from people who could be harmed if they escaped.

As long as people keep thinking that they can tame nature and put it in a cage, another Zanesville is just around the corner.

This article was first published on Scientific American. © 2011 All rights reserved. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit for the latest in science, health and technology news.

Scientific American