Exotic Animals

Going from bad actor to national model

2011 Exotic Animal Massacre in Zanesville: Ohioans became aware of the dangers and challenges associated with exotic pets on 10/11/2011, when Terry Thompson released 56 of his exotic animals before tragically committing suicide. The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office had to shoot and kill 49 of those animals in order to protect the public–18 tigers, 17 lions, 8 bears, 3 cougars, 2 wolves, 1 baboon, and 1 macaque sadly perished in the incident. According to the Columbus Dispatch, 1 grizzly bear, 3 leopards, and 2 monkeys were taken alive to the Columbus Zoo. According to GQ magazine, “The incident made global news. It also thrust into daylight, if only for a brief moment, a secret world of privately-owned exotic animals living off the grid, and often right next door.”   

2012 Ohio Passes a Ban on Ohio Exotic Animal Ownership: Before Zanesville, Ohio was well-known for some of America’s most lax regulation of exotic pets combined with some of the country’s highest rates of injuries and deaths caused by them. On 06/05/2012, former Ohio Governor John Kasich signed the “Dangerous Wild Animal Act” (Ohio Rev. Code § 935.01 to 935.99) into law. This law prohibits persons from possessing dangerous animals as defined by the law after 01/01/2014 unless they are grandfathered in. 

However, issues with private ownership of exotics are not over in Ohio as people still own exotic animals without the proper permits and oversight. Underground activity and illegal transportation across state lines without the proper permits still exists. 

Since the law took effect, Ohio has been described as going from bad actor to national model. The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has issued no new permits, and both the number of exotic animals and the number of owners with permits has dropped, according to the ODA. Grandfathered permittees are required to carry massive insurance policies–causing many owners to surrender their animals to sanctuaries.

10/13/2019 Serval on the Loose: The Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 10/13/2019 call that identified a large cat in a residential subdivision that had attacked a dog and generally appeared threatening to people. An officer reported the cat was aggressive and assumed an attack stance, leading the officer to shoot and kill the cat to protect himself and the public. The incident made national news (see Wildlife Protection Resources). 

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources later identified the large cat as a serval–a wild cat native to Africa. The serval was wearing a collar, indicating that it was someone’s pet. However, ODA denied having any records of Fairfield County citizens holding a state permit for a serval. ODA officials executed a search warrant for the property of Stacy Elliot, the father of Ezekiel Elliott, former Ohio State University and current NFL player. The serval was brought across state lines from Indiana.  

Vicki Deisner, OAA Executive Director, authored a letter to the editor on 4/18/23 in the Columbus Dispatch entitled ‘Wildebeest Tip of the Iceberg‘.  Not only did a former Vinton County official steal over $9000 in public funds, he used money to set up a roadside zoo caging exotic animals in deplorable conditions.  While “public education” is often touted as a justification for roadside zoo displays, this excuse assumes that simply seeing exotic animals up close — no matter how unnatural the setting — fosters an appreciation for animals in the wild. Rather, the likely take-home message is that an exotic animal would make an intriguing pet — often leading to neglect, abuse, improper breeding, and attacks.

Federal Legislation is Needed to End Interstate Trafficking and Ownership of Exotic Animals.  A big step was taken with the  passage of H.R. 263, The Big Cat Public Safety Act, in the fall of 2022. This law will revise requirements governing the trade and the exhibition of big cats, including restricting direct contact between the public and big cats such as cub-petting and exhibitions, including backyard and roadside zoos.  According to the Animal Welfare Institute, it is estimated that thousands of big cats are currently kept in captivity around the United States.