In October, the owner of a private exotic animal "zoo" opened the gates of his menagerie—releasing dozens of animals into the surrounding community—before taking his own life. In the days that followed, local law enforcement officers—who were understandably unprepared to deal with tracking and capturing animals like tigers, lions, grizzly bears, and baboons—were forced to kill all 49 animals.
In a single day, TreeHugger Writer Matthew McDermott pointed out, Ohio police killed the equivalent of 36 percent of China's wild tiger population.
Though the release in Ohio stands as an extreme example of exotic pet management gone horribly wrong, it was not an isolated incident. Born Free, an organization that tracks the treatment of wild animals in captivity in the United States estimates that there have been more than 1,600 incidents involving exotic animals in the US since 1990. More than five percent of these incidents, they estimate, have occurred in Ohio?
The obvious question that emerges is what makes Ohio such a popular—and dangerous—place for exotic animals. The first part of the explanation is tied to a growing trend. Around the country, buying, trading, and keeping exotic animals in private homes and farms is increasing in popularity. In the last decade, these animals—which include everything from tigers to giraffes, bears to dolphins—have become ever more available thanks to the Internet.
In spite of their rarity, exotic animals are surprisingly cheap. At auction, animals like tigers reportedly fetch a price between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars—less than some purebred dogs. For some species, this accessibility has created a strange imbalance: There are now more tigers in private hands in the US (and this doesn't include those in public, USDA regulated zoos), for example than exist in the wild in the entire world.
The other consideration is the regulation of exotic animals. In the United States, this is prescribed by the state—and the rules governing exotic animals vary widely from state to state. Most states have some restriction on the practice—including everything from outright bans on certain species to permitting and licensing schedules. At least eight states, including Ohio, have no few or no regulations whatsoever.
Federal law governs the sale and interstate transport of certain species—specifically those listed on the Endangered Species List like tigers and the Animal Welfare Act like lions—and any exotic animals that are placed on public display—as in a zoo or circus—are regulated by the USDA. Those kept in private collections, like the ones released in Ohio, do not fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA and are regulated—or not—by the state in which they reside.
The issue, however, is larger then the tension between federal and state jurisdiction. With regulations that are limited and poorly enforced at best, people are free to buy, sell, and care for exotic animals in any way they choose. Unfortunately, once the cost, difficultly, and danger of keeping these animals sinks in, this often drifts far from the ideal. Beyond being held in cramped cages, there is the simple reality that many animals—like tigers—are worth more dead and divided into pieces for sale on the black market than they are alive.
Perhaps then, as governments in Africa and Asia struggle to fight an ever-escalating war against poachers that threatens the survival of some of the planet's most iconic species, the United States should lend a hand by looking within its own boarders and tightening the reigns on a largely overlooked practice that has already run out of control.