When Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo came out last year, I was not particularly amused: it’s always seemed to me that treating the welfare of wild animals as all fun and games ignores the safety and needs of everyone involved. And now two stories about a huge private menagerie in Zanesville, Ohio where the owner let the animals lose, killed himself, and left the local authorities to try to contain a hugely dangerous situation (mostly, they had to kill the animals) have made clear precisely how un-cute this situation can be. As y’all know, I’m not particularly in favor of regulating entertainment. But when the thing that entertains you both has physical needs and can pose a danger to you, your neighbors, and itself, I find it stunning that wild animal ownership is unregulated as it is. In Esquire, Chris Jones points out that Terry Thompson’s animal ownership was less regulated than his gun poessession:
Lutz had tried for years to strip Thompson of his personal zoo, but the one animal-cruelty charge the department managed to make stick — concerning the fate of some starved cows and a buffalo — hadn’t had the desired effect. The truth was that Thompson was doing nothing illegal, at least not according to the laws of Ohio. So long as he wasn’t charging admission, he could have all the animals he wanted, virtually unregulated. But Thompson was less fortunate in his handling of another of his hoards, an arsenal of more than one hundred guns. With the assistance of the ATF, Lutz had seen Thompson charged with the possession of illegal firearms after a sting had found some with their serial numbers carefully filed off.
At GQ, Chris Heath goes into more detail on both the regulatory, cultural and ethical issues involved in what I think is a less action-movie-y but more comprehensive piece:
One of the surprising facts about owning animals like these in America right now is that while keeping them may not be cheap, buying them frequently is. Tom Stalf at the Columbus Zoo suggests to me that you can buy a lion for $300—cheaper than many pedigree dogs…Just as “good” private owners explain why they should exist and why “bad” private owners should not, sanctuaries may suggest that they should endure while private owners are phased out, and zoos can loftily assume there are clear reasons that they should be cherished while most kinds of non-zoo ownership should be frowned upon. I can see a logic in some kind of extreme libertarian position (people should be able to do what they want with animals unless they are clearly shown to be doing harm) and, conversely, in a hard-core animal-rights position (no animals should be used for any human purpose whatsoever), but the arguments for everything in between seem murky. Frequently these are based on a confident assessment of the animals’ happiness (a thorny notion), and on the pragmatic need to save animals from a place worse than where they are. (Everyone knows somewhere else worse.)
I’m not a wildlife expert, so I’m not the one to lay out a set of standards here. But I’m not clear what the argument should be for why the requirements for both animals’ and humans’ safety and well-being should be different depending on whether the animals’ owners are zoos or private individuals. In both cases, it seems like we should try to guarantee that the animals have adequate room to move around, a steady, healthy food source, and that the humans in proximity to them who are not their owners are guaranteed a level of safety. Such regulations seem like they’d end up imposing reasonable restrictions on the number of wild animals any one person could own and support. It’s one thing to say that someone has the right to take the risk that an animal who lives with them will rip them to pieces: it’s another entirely to say that their friends and neighbors have to accept being exposed to that risk.