Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Where Should We Tread?

I’m having Internet issues today, so I apologize if this AI seems rushed. Want to try to get something posted for you all to discuss before I lose my connection again.

Well, I’ve recently been following a couple of different intriguing stories in the news dealing with large animals.

One tragic story here in the US yesterday saw the release of dozens of “exotic” animals by a disturbed man in Ohio, who then apparently killed himself. Terry W. Thompson claimed to love exotic animals, and had maintained his backyard zoo for years, before charging the animals with their freedom and then taking his own life.

Lacking the means with which to safely recapture the animals, and to ensure the safety of the citizens of Muskingum County, officials were forced to put many of the escaped animals down.

I won’t post any of the gruesome photos that show the animal carcasses piled up, but it was quite a disturbing sight.

Contrasting the tragic tale in Ohio was the video footage a kayaker captured of blue whales off the coast of Southern California.

By all accounts, this has been an incredible blue whale season in the area. Marine mammal enthusiast have had many close encounters with the enormous mammals from shore and on boats, and from stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. Some of the footage has been amazing, including the first-ever-documented above-surface vocalization.

But for today’s discussion:

Should the average person keep exotic animals in “backyard zoos”? What are the negatives/positives? Have you ever encountered/kept a backyard zoo? What could Ohio officials have done differently? What of the whale watchers? Did the kayaker put himself at risk by paddling so close to the blue whales? Have you ever encountered large sea creatures up close in their natural habitat? 

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I think clearly the “average person” should not keep exotic animals. These animals are a danger to and a potential burden on the society that surrounds them. It is reasonable for society to regulate the practice. I think the best way to deal with it is to have anyone who wants to keep such an animal prove they have the expertise, the resources, and the facility to care for the animals for the rest of their natural life. The criteria would be objective and applied to all applicants. If a private citizen qualifies then boffo. Clearly this guy didn’t.

  2. Sam Ogden,

    This is upsetting. Regardless of how one might feel about this issue, why did he do it?

  3. This case really hit me hard, because I have encountered a backyard zoo. I worked for an illusionist who owned a leopard. He housed the animal at an “animal preserve” that was literally in the owner’s backyard. The animals lived in rows of chain link cages just big enough for them to turn around in with just a walkway in between. There were leopards, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my). They got very little exercise. The owner also had a pack of dogs living in a cage under his porch, which I assume was for chasing down any animal that got loose. It was very disturbing, and I don’t think these animals should be kept under such conditions.

    The possession of animals like that should come with strict licensing procedures, including annual and random inspection of facilities and animals. The standards for facilities must be exceedingly high and include rapid access to appropriate veterinary care and appropriate training and re-certification of everyone who deals with the animals. This guy apparently took advantage of a loophole that mandates standards for zoos, but apply no standards for individuals who do not display the animals. The trade in exotic animals of all kinds needs to be stopped as well.

    1. Somewhere there’s a breakdown of the states and just how strict the regulations for these types of zoos are per state. I’ll see if I can find it. But it’s actually more difficult to have a cat or dog as a pet in couple of states than it is to own and keep exotic animals.

  4. Very much agree with davew here. Want exotics? Fine. But prove you can care for them first.

    One of my big, big pet peeves is when individuals decide to acquire an animal without doing their homework first. And nearly EVERYONE I know does this — walks into a pet store and walks out with something without knowing anything about its needs. This issue has only become more severe as exotic animals become increasingly common in the pet trade. Different species have different requirements (not just diet and housing, but social/mental stimulation as well), and undomesticated pets are much higher-maintenance than a dog or cat. Provide what it needs, and do it right. This includes time constraints. If you genuinely identify yourself as an animal lover, then you should love them enough not to fill your house with so many that you don’t have time for them all.

    I have no issue with people keeping exotics, so long as they know what they’re getting into and have the time and resources to care for them. If either you or your animals are miserable, then you shouldn’t have them.

  5. I have years of experience at an Exotic Carnivore Sanctuary (Lions, Tigers, Leopards, Wolves and a lot of other things). Lots of those animals came from “pet” situations where the owner couldn’t handle the exotic animal anymore. The number of requests for placement (can you take my tiger?) was hundreds of times the number of animals the facility could take.

    Theoretically I don’t have a problem with a well educated, experienced, committed person having an exotic animal but in practical terms the number of people who are suited to having exotics is very, very small and regulating the illegal trade is expensive (let’s hear it for “smaller government”) so I tend to support flat out bans.

    The guy kayaking with the whales? Very foolish. Don’t make me pay for his medical expenses or coast guard rescue. [secret inner voice: I’m jealous!]

    1. While surfing in Baja a few years ago, near a place called La Fonda, several porpoises swam up and around my friends and I shortly after we paddled out. I rubbed my thumb on the edge of my board to make a squeaking sound, and a couple of them came right up to me to check it out; close enough to touch.

      I wasn’t afraid of them, but I’m always struck by the size and power of porpoises and dolphins in the ocean. It’s intimidating (and exciting) to be in their house.

      But I’m not sure I’d want to be that close to a blue whale on just a surfboard or a kayak.

  6. Here in the great state of California ferrets and sugar gliders are on the list of exotic species that are illegal! This is really taking it way too far.

    On a better note, I swam & scuba dived with a grey whale off the coast of La Jolla CA. It was an amazing awe inspiring experience. At one point I was rubbing it’s back as it breached. Fantastic!

    I didn’t feel in danger at any point but I don’t know how dangerous whales really are to humans. The only real dangerous whale I know of is the killer whale, which is not a whale, so we’re good.

    1. Its not because those animals are “exotic” per se, but that they will wreak havoc on agriculture and force out other, native species that occupy similar niches. Look to the past in places like Australia and Hawaii for some examples of importation of non-native species going awry.

      Not that I ever want to back up/make excuses for the “great” state of Kalifornia…

  7. John Kasich allowed Ohio law requiring licensing of exotics to expire. Ohio had no restrictions on owning these kinds of animals, although they’re promising to change that, now.

    I’ve worked with domestic animals, and seen many rescue and sanctuary operations for exotics. I think they should only be kept by those facilities that can demonstrate the ability to provide an excellent standard-of-care.

    The stakes are too high – for the animals and the people. Even allowing private ownership, except in unique circumstance, is insane to me. There’s no place for these animals if something goes wrong. Orgs that care for them are overwhelmed.

    1. of course, he could always hope the whale turned in to a bowl of petunias before it landed on him.

  8. Back when my boys were in cub scouts my co-leader kept suggesting we take the boys visit her friend who had a collection of Florida panthers in his backyard. Finally I agreed and come to find out the house was two streets over from mine! I had no idea and was forever wary of letting my kids wander too far after that. This was in a regular suburban neighborhood, though his property was backed up to a drainage ditch with a retirement trailer park on the other side. Years later my Dad bought the trailer directly across the ditch and you could hear those poor caged animals day and night. He couldn’t keep his windows open for the stench. THAT should have been outlawed. I don’t even LIKE animals but I hate to see them mistreated like that.

  9. Many people have not a clue what wild animals are like, having been grossly misinformed via exposure to Disney and other MSM anthropomorphizing of wild animals.

    I have read about rangers stopping parents from smearing peanut butter on their child’s face to get a cute picture of a bear licking it.

    You can’t “socialize” non-social animals like bears. They don’t have the brain structures to have social behaviors. They can be “trained” to exhibit social-like behaviors, but they are not real social behaviors, they are fake.

    1. Captive wildlife can be socialized, but not domesticated.

      I don’t know anything about brain structures – are they really different? The closest I could find was a comparison of wild and domestic rat adaptation to captivity and release, respectively. But nothing about differences in brain structures.

      1. Yes, non-social animals don’t have the brain structures necessary to instantiate social behaviors. Rats are social animals. Tigers, leopards and bears are not.

        It is exactly the same as non-flying animals not having the physiology to support flight, or non-air breathing animals not having the physiology to support breathing air, or non-walking animals not having the physiology to support walking.

        You can’t “train” an animal to exhibit behaviors it doesn’t have the physiology to support. You can’t “train” a fish to fly, to breath air, or to walk.

        You can train a non-social animal to mimic social behaviors well enough to fool humans, but that is because humans are hard-wired to impute social behaviors even where none exist. That is why many humans see agency in inanimate objects like trees, rocks, water, wind.

    2. I think you are generally right, but I would add that people have no idea what animals in general are like. Even dogs, which have been domesticated for millennia, still have instincts from their wild ancestors. Every animal has a brain and has instinctive behaviors. People need to know that any animal can be unpredictable, but wild animals especially so. I learned this in obedience school with my dog. It wasn’t part of the lesson plan, but you could see that there are moments where the obedience champion, who would remain in a stay for long periods with lots of distractions, would occasionally fail to do so and would behave “badly”, usually related to another dog. Their need to respond to signals from other dogs and establish a social order will overcome all other training and socialization in some situations. Also, the presence of squirrels. If that is true of champion performing obedience dogs, how much more true of a wild cat?

  10. Although the Ohio story was tragic, the thing that strikes me is the media reports of “endangered animals being killed”. From a conservation perspective, these animals are already dead to the population. In a private zoo, they are making no positive contribution to the overall status of the species. Animals such as these, kept in a captive situation for most of their lives, are not suitable for release into the wild. Arguably, the only benefit of their existence is (selfishly) the pleasure of the guy keeping them.

    Even if the situation had been different and the animals were able to be shot with tranquilisers, there would be big problems with quarantine to even get them into a public zoo – which actually has some conservation goals in mind.

  11. The general ignorance of wild animals’ needs has been pointed out above. I think that’s spot on and that the percentage of owners who don’t know what they’re doing warrants large-scale bans/regulation. But I say this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t own any pets and would certainly never want a wild animal.

    Does anyone have any insight into the arguments for the other side (even if they’re not your particular views)? Does this fall into the ‘I should be able to do what I want’ school of freedom? Are there any specific freedoms that people argue are inappropriately limited by a wild animal ban? Do bans encourage a black market that would otherwise be more visible?

    I ask because I’m having trouble understanding any argument against bans/strict regulation. A good skeptic can’t feel firm in her position before she understands the other side!

    1. Genesis 1:26
      And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
      Don’t ya know.

  12. Possesion and keeping of ANY animal should be regulated and animal cruelty laws universally enforced. Fine – have a backyard zoo – but provide the animals in it with sufficient space, exercise and food and conform to safety regulations ensuring the animals cannot get loose and cause harm.

  13. I’ve never come across an ‘Backyard Zoo’, and not even sure if it’s possible for an individual to have such a thing here in the UK.

    But on the subject of the video. Yes, possibly the Kayaker did put himself at risk by getting so close, but so what? It was his risk with his life to take. He didn’t seem to be being stupid. He certainly didn’t seem to be attempting to make physical contact. If he had been injured then it would be his own fault sure, but that is his choice. I doubt he could have harmed the whale even if he tried.

  14. I’ve been following this via Big Cat Rescue

    They maintain that no exotic cats should ever be kept as pets, they’re a danger to people (even a friendly tiger will hurt you) and the average person doesn’t know to take care of them.
    I think it’s very sad what this man did, and even sadder that the animals died.

  15. WolfHaven in Olympia, WA gets far more requests to take “pet wolves” than they have room for, and also to take wolf/dog hybrids, which they can’t take because they would run out of room really damn quick.

    I really, really, really loathe the macho redneck attitude that wants to “own a wolf” and exert their mastery over it. A. Most of them don’t understand how to appropriately do that in terms the wolf understands* and wind up abusing them, or in having the wolf turn the tables on them and then the wolf is destroyed or turned over to a sanctuary. (Can’t go to zoos, they are socialized to people however poorly, and certainly can’t go back to the wild.)

    B. WOLVES ARE NOT DOGS! And honestly, there are an awful lot of people with big dogs who don’t understand how to deal with them, let alone actual wild wolves.

    After seeing my husband’s stupid redneck cousin have two wolf hybrids destroyed (the neighbors complained about their constant howling because he wouldn’t let them out of their kennel because “they might go after the kids”) I am about done with these jackasses, and I’m grateful my husband doesn’t make me do holidays with that side of the family anymore.

    /morons who don’t understand what they’re getting into soapbox

    *You have to “dominate” wolves the way they dominate each other in order to get it to stick. And they will continually challenge you.

  16. You ask a lot of questions, Sam!

    Should the average person keep exotic animals in “backyard zoos”?
    No. For just this reason.

    What could Ohio officials have done differently?
    I am not sure they could have handled it differently, but it is sad beyond measure.

    What of the whale watchers? Did the kayaker put himself at risk by paddling so close to the blue whales?
    Yes. He was depending on the whale to maintain his safety. That said, it was his choice, and it looked awesome.

    Have you ever encountered large sea creatures up close in their natural habitat?
    We swim with the dolphins when we go to Jamaica. But they are trained to not kill us. So I’m not sure if that counts.

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