Lessons Learned from Zanesville

In case you haven’t heard about the shocking tragedy that unfolded in Zanesville, Ohio earlier this week, a man who owned a farm where he kept exotic pets—including lions, tigers, bears, wolves, and primates—set them all loose and then killed himself. For the sake of public safety, local authorities were forced to hunt down and kill almost all the escaped animals. Although this was alarming news, there were warning signs: the owner had not run the operation responsibly, resulting in complaints from neighbors and allegations of animal abuse and neglect; he had just spent a year in prison for possession of unregistered weapons; his marriage had dissolved; and he was deeply in debt, unable to keep up with the costs of caring for the creatures in his possession.

The Associated Press’s excellent October 22 article, “Ohio Case Renews Old Questions About Exotic Pets,” provides a detailed account of what happened and also examines the factors that contribute to the surplus of exotic animals that find their way into facilities that are similarly ill-equipped to care for them, especially over the long term. Loose regulations and ignorance regarding the needs of wild animals—particularly as they mature into adulthood—are largely to blame. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is one of many longtime supporters of tougher policies regarding the ownership of wild animals, and has created a news and advocacy hub on its Web site focusing on this issue and featuring a video clip on the Zanesville story (note: this video is NOT graphic):

Born Free USA offers a free interactive Exotic Animals Incidents Database on its Web site documenting attacks on humans, attacks on other animals, and escapes by exotic animals in the U.S. since 1990. Users can create custom reports via functionality that allows them to search by state, species, incident type, or keyword, and can see their search results represented as data points on a map.

What may be most relevant from a fundraising perspective, however, is this: the road to sad endings like this one is often paved with good intentions. These stories frequently begin with the thought, “I love animals.” Many people who keep wild animals in captivity want to do right by them, but haven’t done their homework and soon get in over their heads as their financial resources are rapidly depleted and they discover that they lack the necessary skills to provide responsible care.

The crucial point that even animal lovers often miss is that wild animals belong in the wild, not only for their own welfare, but also—perhaps even more importantly—for the welfare of the ecosystems that depend on them. There are few circumstances that justify keeping them in captivity; those that do include rehabilitating animals with life-threatening injuries, rebuilding populations of highly endangered species, conducting research to better understand the life cycles and needs of animals living in threatened ecosystems, and providing a refuge for previously captured animals whose return to the wild would pose unnatural dangers to themselves and/or others.

In short, the vast majority of those who contemplate keeping wild animals—even those whose hearts are in the right place—shouldn’t in fact go through with it and are strongly urged to leave it to the experts.

Speaking of the experts, two organizations stand out as go-to resources on responsible and sustainable management of wild animals in captivity: The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). AZA offers detailed information about accreditation requirements on its Web site to promote high-quality facilities and high standards of wild animal care in zoological settings. GFAS offers the following resources:

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