Exotic animals belong in the wild, not the backyard

The photographs of the carnage left on the ground outside a Zanesville, Ohio, barn are heartbreaking.

Forty-eight exotic animals killed — including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, three leopards and three mountain lions, after their owner freed them from confinement before committing suicide.

Investigators are still trying to piece together why Terry Thompson, 62, loosed the animals on his neighbors. But the fact that it was legal for him to amass that many dangerous animals in the first place is a question Ohio lawmakers need to answer.

Stories of people who keep exotic animals — particularly big cats — as pets or living curiosities pop up from time to time, generally because one of the creatures has turned on an owner. I used to hear about them when I worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus fielded calls from folks throughout the country who were trying to place an animal with someone else after the cute, cuddly "kitten" (actually called a cub) grew to its full size. Bengal males can weigh between 350 and almost 600 pounds.

No matter how long a big cat has been raised in a domestic setting, the fact remains it is a wild animal.


It can be trained, but it can't really be tamed. It never outgrows its natural instincts. Unfortunately, when a big cat is forced into a domestic environment, its natural instinct to hunt can turn the family poodle or the neighbor's Persian cat — or worse, the kid next door — into prey. To a tiger, a small child can look like lunch.

It was a privilege to work around one of the premier animal trainers in the world, Gunther Gebel-Williams, before his retirement from Ringling Bros. While my public relations job required that I spend the majority of time on the road in advance of the show, on occasion I would be in a city the same time The Greatest Show on Earth was appearing.

The golden-haired Gunther made things look so easy as he worked under the spotlights with his retinue of cats — Siberian and Bengal tigers, leopards and cheetahs. The loving ease with which he motivated and cajoled them around the ring disguised hours upon hours of tedious labor spent in the training arena with the cats. (Side note: Gunther refused to work with lions. He claimed they were stupid and slow.)

The tigers used in Gunther's act were raised by him, many of them from birth. Gunther did not delegate the mundane day-to-day duties of feeding and caring for the animals to assistants or other handlers; he did the work himself. His knowledge of the behavior of big cats was as complete as any human's could be. And based on that intimate knowledge of how the animals behave, Gunther believed private citizens had no business keeping big cats.

What most of the circus-going public couldn't see from the bleacher seats, obscured by the flashing bright lights and Gebel-Williams' glitzy circus attire, became painfully obvious when you met him. The scar tissue covering his body looked like a series of railroad tracks — evidence of just how dangerous the big cats can be, even for a man who raised them from their births.

Gunther did not declaw his cats. In addition to diminishing the impact of his act, it was cruel, he believed, to remove the cat's first line of defense. But in many cases when private owners decide to raise cats in captivity, declawing is the first thing they do. And that's when they seal the animal's fate. Zoos won't take them, the circus won't take them and they can't be released into the wild. They must forever remain pseudo pets — not a natural way for the majestic, powerful creatures to exist and a lurking danger for the owners and surrounding community.

Claws, fangs and natural instinct are why Ohio law enforcement officers had to kill most of the animals loosed by Thompson. They couldn't be left alive as dark fell on the mostly rural area about 55 miles east of Columbus.

You know it had to make those officers sick to have to kill such amazing creatures.


Very few scenarios come to mind where a private residence should be home to an exotic animal, even when the residence has 73 acres of land surrounding it, as did Thompson's "preserve." Animal rights' activists carry the issue even further, questioning the validity of exotic animals being used to perform in circuses. While I can attest to the fact that Gunther's animals — big cats, elephants and horses — were treated better than the hundreds of thousands of cats and dogs that end up destroyed in this nation's animal shelters every year, I also question the need for placing exotic animals in forced servitude just to cater to America's desire for entertainment.

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