As dusk fell on the rolling farmland near a private Zanesville, Ohio, animal park on Tuesday, police officers greeted with the stunning sight of growling Bengal tigers, lions, and grizzly bears wandering free were left, they say, with only one option: Open fire.
The tragedy of the Zanesville exotic animals shooting, where 50 of the 56 animals released by owner Terry Thompson were killed by police snipers, drew a visceral and irate national response as the local sheriff received hundreds of angry calls in reaction to photos that showed the bodies of dead tigers and lions lying in a field.
The broader question, however, is whether the backlash to the shootings will force Ohio and other states to address the free-wheeling exotic animal trade in the US, a country which now holds more privately-owned tigers than exist in the wild, and where a tiger cub can be had for $700.
"In every respect this is organized crime," Bryan Christy, the author of an exposé about animal trafficking called "The Lizard King," tells the New Scientist website. "It's just that the commodity makes people smile."
Experts estimate that there are over 5,000 privately-owned Bengal tigers alone in the US, more than a wild population that numbers about 3,600. The breeding, buying, and selling of exotic animals is only loosely regulated in the US and permits are required only when exhibiting animals – a system of loopholes that makes the exotic trade "the most profitable form of trans-boundary trade, bar none," according to Mr. Christy.
In the wake of the Zanesville shootings, animal rights groups stepped up calls for an outright ban on transporting and owning exotic animals. "These animals should not be kept in people's backyards, their basements, or bedrooms," Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
But groups like the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, Inc., which have successfully fought for the right to own non-native animals, vowed to block new legislation. Exotic pet owners say an outright ban is going too far, and that authorities should focus on shutting down problem facilities like the one Thompson ran outside Zanesville.
As a sign of the power of the exotic animal trade, a federal law limiting the transport of primates in the US failed recently in Congress, and a push to ban the ownership of big, invasive snakes like pythons has found little traction despite several deaths in Florida in recent years.
Seven states, including Ohio, have no direct bans on owning such animals, and federal authorities control only the interstate transfers of big, non-native animals like Bengal tigers.
Just this year, a temporary rule in Ohio that banned those convicted of animal cruelty – which included Mr. Thompson – from owning exotic animals was allowed to lapse by Gov. John Kasich. A Kasich spokesman this week called the previous rule "sloppy" because it didn't include clear authority for the state to regulate non-native animals and didn't stipulate what the state should do with seized animals.
On Friday, however, Mr. Kasich signed another emergency rule, ordering police to identify locations of potentially dangerous animals in the state and to work with zoos to house seized animals. But, more critically, Kasich ordered state wildlife officials to come up with a stronger law that the legislature can address in its next session.
"We will seek statutory authority," Mr. Kasich said on Friday. "Changes must be made in the law."
Although only animals were hurt in Ohio on Tuesday, animal rights groups have counted at least 1,500 incidents in the US of humans being hurt in exotic animal attacks, including a kangaroo attack in Ohio, in September.
For now, the reluctance of states like Ohio to close exotic animal trade loopholes means police bear the brunt of complaints as well as public backlash when officers are forced to kill escaped animals. Capture was ruled out for most of the escaped Zanesville animals because night was falling and public safety had become a major concern given the sheer numbers of dangerous animals walking around.
When Mr. Thompson, apparently distraught over financial and relationship problems, let his animals out and then killed himself, the end result hit police officers as hard as the public, said Sheriff Matt Lutz.
“These killings were senseless," he told reporters, noting that Thompson had been allowed to keep his animals despite police being called to the property several times in the past. "For our guys to have to do this, it was crazy…. We don’t go to the academy and get trained on how to deal with 300-pound Bengal tigers. I’m just glad [officers] had the courage to get out of their cars.”