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Ohio Incident Renews Call for Michigan Not to Weaken Laws Regulating Dangerous Exotic Pets

The Humane Society of the United States is calling on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to issue an emergency order or otherwise direct the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to adopt regulations on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals following the escape Tuesday night of 48 wild animals—from bears to wolves to lions—from an exotic animal menagerie in Zanesville, Ohio. While Michigan currently has a strong law prohibiting the possession of large carnivores, proposed legislation threatens to weaken that law by allowing members of a private exotic animal owners’ group to obtain these animals.

“How many incidents must we catalogue before states like Michigan take action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Since 1990, there have been 15 incidents involving exotic animals in Michigan. Two people have died and 13 suffered injuries, seven of them children, because the state hasn’t exhibited the foresight to stop private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions, and the situation gets more surreal with every new incident, including this mass escape or release of large animals in Ohio.”

In response to the Zanesville incident alone, Ohio authorities have already spent enormous resources on personnel, helicopters, infrared, and equipment to chase down and kill free-roaming exotic animals in order to protect public safety.

Authorities reported that exotic pet farm owner Terry Thompson was found dead on his Zanesville property, and cages were open where he had kept dozens of lions, bears and wolves. The animals were roaming the streets, and many have already been shot by responders.

Ohio is one of five states that don’t regulate private ownership of dangerous wild animals, jeopardizing public safety and animal welfare. Addressing the issue was one of the elements of a deal struck by The HSUS and agricultural leaders in Ohio to advance a series of animal welfare policies in the state.

Below is a rundown of the five worst state laws restricting exotic animals:

Missouri: Although the state requires certain dangerous exotic animals, including primates, to be registered with local law enforcement, the rule does not appear to be enforced. Missouri is home to a large exotic animal auction in Macon and to a number of breeders and dealers.

  • 2009: Authorities removed more than 200 neglected dogs from an alleged puppy mill, along with the owner's underweight pet tiger. 
  • 2008: A tiger jumped out of an enclosure and mauled a volunteer at a Warrenton, Mo. exotic animal menagerie that previously had lost its U.S. Department of Agriculture license to operate as an exhibitor. The man's leg had to be amputated below the knee.
  • 2008: A 16-year-old reportedly entered a cage to take a photograph at a Branson West animal attraction and was severely injured by three tigers.
  • 2001: The mother of Travis, the chimpanzee involved in the Connecticut incident, escaped from a Festus, Mo. facility and was shot and killed. 

Nevada: Almost anything goes in Nevada when it comes to owning exotic animals (other than venomous snakes and crocodilians), and the consequences have sometimes been deadly.

  • 2009: A 3-year-old boy was bitten and squeezed to the point of unconsciousness by his parents' 18-foot pet reticulated python.
  • 2008: Animal services personnel responding to a call about a large dog on the roof of a home instead found two pet leopards who had gotten loose.
  • 2007: A 73-year-old woman was killed by wolf hybrids her son kept as pets.
  • 2006: A sick, malnourished mountain lion cub was abandoned at the Las Vegas Zoo in the middle of the night. The de-clawed animal had clearly been someone's pet.
  • 2003: Roy Horn was attacked by a tiger during a performance in Las Vegas. Wild animals are frequently put on display at the state's entertainment venues. 

North Carolina: North Carolina regulates native species, but has essentially no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets. A bill currently under consideration would require registration for certain dangerous reptiles but would allow some public contact with venomous snakes, which is currently prohibited.

  • 2007: A woman brought her 15-month-old son to a park; as she was lowering him to the ground, a ball python wrapped around his leg and bit him. The snakes are not native to the United States and might have been an abandoned pet.
  •  2007: A woman working at a convenience store was bitten by a pet monkey a man brought with him into the store.
  • 2004: A woman was rushed to the hospital after being bitten by one of her father's four tigers.
  • 2004: A man was found selling venomous snakes at a flea market.
  • 2003: A 10-year-old boy was killed by a relative's tiger, but this tragic incident wasn't enough for lawmakers to prohibit exotic pets in the state.

Ohio: The state regulates native species, but has no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets. Ohio is a center for breeding and selling wild and exotic animals. The Mt. Hope exotic animal auction advertises monkeys, lions, bears, kangaroos and more for sale. News reports say that 57 bear breeders are licensed by the state.

  • 2006: A man was killed by his pet python.
  • 2006: A 500-pound bear escaped from an animal breeder, entered a neighboring home and attacked a woman.
  • 2006: A fire killed a bear cub and two tiger cubs at the home of a man who eventually lost his USDA license for substandard conditions.
  • 2006: A man was bitten by a pet macaque he got that day.
  • 2004: A woman was killed by a venomous snake she kept as a pet.
  • 2003: A man was killed by a venomous snake he kept as a pet.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets, and the state specifically exempts primates and many other exotic species from its import permit requirement. The state also is home to exotic animal facilities with dismal safety and animal welfare records.

  • 2009: A man reportedly moved from Florida to Oklahoma with 14 tigers and a bear; authorities said the bear was considered native wildlife and required a state permit, but a state permit was not needed for the tigers.
  • 2008: A volunteer at an exotic animal facility was attacked by a liger — a cross between a lion and a tiger — and died of the wounds.
  • 2003: A woman volunteering at an exotic animal park died after being attacked by a tiger, who severed her arm.
  • 1997: A leopard burst from a cage at another facility and killed a woman.

With little oversight of exotic animal ownership, states like West Virginia, Wisconsin and Alabama are not far behind in terms of regressive policies. Some states that previously had no restrictions on exotic pets have enacted prohibitions in recent years — such as Washington, Kentucky and Iowa — putting them now among the best in the nation. Some states that already prohibit certain wild animals such as big cats as pets need to add primates to the list, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Virginia. Similarly, states such as Oregon with permit requirements should move to a prohibition and expand the list of covered animals.


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The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization — backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — On the Web at humanesociety.org


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