By Brady Jones - Staff Writer

In the early evening of October 18, 2011, the Zanesville, Ohio police department began receiving phone calls from terrified citizens. There were dozens of animals on the loose, running wild through their neighborhood. What made these calls different from the ordinary escaped animal reports were the species of animals being reported: bears, wolves, cougars and, most alarming, lions and tigers. This wasn’t a zoo escape, however, as these animals were fleeing from a private residence. The Zanesville police department, or any other organization for that matter, had no experience with a disaster of this magnitude and the only way to prevent massive human casualties was to execute every animal on sight. When this frightening ordeal was finally under control, 50 exotic animals were dead, along with their owner. Among the dead were 18 Bengal tigers and 17 lions. It was later determined that the owner of the property set all of his animals free, then committed suicide. 

This horrible tragedy made international news and brought necessary attention to the highly controversial subject of private ownership of wild and exotic cats. Finding an accurate number of citizens who are involved in this practice, or the number of animals in captivity, is difficult to truly ascertain. There is no official organization which specifically monitors this activity, and many exotic animal owners remain in the shadows, afraid of losing their animals to the government or animal advocacy groups. According to Born Free USA, the number of exotic animals kept as pets are estimated to be in the millions. Most noteworthy is the fact that there are an estimated 5,000-7,000 tigers held in captivity, which is more than the amount living freely in the wild. The Humane Society estimates that fewer than 400 of those tigers are in zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Exotic cats owned privately by individuals, roadside zoos, and local petting facilities often live in perilous, tragic conditions with little to no consideration given to the welfare of the animal itself

Exotic cats owned privately by individuals, roadside zoos, and local petting facilities often live in perilous, tragic conditions with little to no consideration given to the welfare of the animal itself

One of the problems with exotic pet legislation is the lack of consistency from state to state. Born Free USA currently lists 19 states that ban the ownership of exotic animals, 12 states that have a partial ban, 14 states that simply require the owner to obtain a permit, and 5 states that have no restrictions at all. In Canada, only British Columbia has a complete ban on exotic animal ownership. Other provinces have laws regarding permits that vary in degree of restrictiveness. Generally, in both the USA and Canada there is relatively light regulation and the little which does exist is difficult to enforce when you don’t know who possesses the animals. Many residents are completely unaware of the exotic animals living in their communities.

The more important issue, however, is the well-being of the animals and the effect that this forced captivity has on them. Many owners of exotic animals are adamant that their animals are loved and cared for; that they are treated like children, and that they are ultimately very happy. This is simply a proclamation without much fact. Apart from the display of outright physical symptoms, it can be difficult to tell if a large male African lion, for instance, is indeed enjoying his time in a cage in Ohio. The fact remains that these animals are not meant to be living a caged life. They are meant to be active and have access to large territories. They are not meant to be living in cages and eating meat purchased from the local supermarket. 

The poor conditions for privately-owned big cats like tigers and lions have made the news in recent years, highlighting the devastating effects such ownership has on these species - image courtesy of peta.org

The poor conditions for privately-owned big cats like tigers and lions have made the news in recent years, highlighting the devastating effects such ownership has on these species - image courtesy of peta.org

Additionally, the conditions these animals often endure are nothing short of cruel and undignified. They live in small, sometimes filthy cages isolated from other animals. They typically have limited space to move about and usually, cannot leave their cage at all due to the fear and risk of them attacking humans. Many exotic cats are declawed and end up dangerously overweight and deficient in vitamins necessary for a healthy life. Regardless of how nurturing their owners claim their upbringing to be, nevertheless these animals are often large, wild predators. As they reach maturity, they display predator-like behaviors which create a very dangerous situation for humans. The cost to both house and feed large cats is also quite costly; expenditures which most exotic pet owners in the USA and Canada cannot afford. Often, the cost of these animals - monetary and otherwise - overwhelm their owners as they grow to adulthood and are discarded, abandoned, or euthanized. According to the Humane Society, there have been more than 1,700 documented cases of dangerous incidents involving exotic pet ownership since 1990. Additionally, these wild animals can carry diseases which can (and do) spread to humans with disastrous effects.

Privately owned big cats like lions may never leave their cages or walk on real grass due to having to be kept confined 24/7 to mitigate risk of escape and/or harm to humans and visitors - image courtesy of peta.org

Privately owned big cats like lions may never leave their cages or walk on real grass due to having to be kept confined 24/7 to mitigate risk of escape and/or harm to humans and visitors - image courtesy of peta.org

In June 2016, the United Arab Emirates passed a draft law prohibiting private ownership of wild and dangerous animals. Failure to comply with such law will result in heavy fines and even imprisonment. In the United States, there is a bill that has been introduced to both the House of Representatives and the Senate called the “Big Cat Public Safety Act.” This piece of legislation seeks to make private ownership or breeding of prohibited animals illegal at the Federal level. Signing this act into law would be a very important step in making it clear that this is not an acceptable practice and we must look past our own personal entertainment in order to put animal safety and comfort at the forefront. 

The fact is that these animals are not meant to be living a caged life. They are meant to be active and have access to large territories. They are not meant to be living in cages and eating meat purchased from the local supermarket.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a relatively isolated issue and one that only affects the people wealthy enough to keep these animals or those who keep exotic animals like big cats despite their lack of resources to care for them. What this really is, however, is a symbol of the larger issue of what the relationship between human beings and nature should be. Is nature something for us to conquer? Is it something that we own and can use for our entertainment, even profit, regardless of the harmful effects? Or, are we simply a small part of a much larger picture that requires us to live in harmony with the natural world and to do everything we can to protect it? It’s hard to understand exotic pet ownership as being anything other than selfish, vain, and greedy by the humans involved. If we truly care about the well-being of exotic animals such as big cats, we must make the practice of big cat ownership illegal, in turn ensuring these exotic species are not overbred in captivity but are rather allowed to remain in safe, even naturally wild habitats, with the goal of working tirelessly to protect those habitats from further destruction.

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