Photograph by Tony Dejak, AP

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A tractor carries an animal carcass for burial at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, Ohio.

Photograph by Tony Dejak, AP

Should the Ohio Exotic Animals Have Been Shot?

Scene described as "Noah's Ark wrecking" raises questions about laws, safety.

The recent shooting of dozens of exotic animals at a private farm in Zanesville, Ohio, is raising new questions about how to handle the growing number of exotics being kept as pets in the United States. (See pictures of the rescued exotic animals from Ohio.)

On Tuesday, Terry W. Thompson killed himself after releasing dozens of exotic animals from their cages at his Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville (map).

As a result, 48 animals were shot and killed by law officers called to the scene. One witness described the aftermath as "Noah's Ark wrecking."

By Wednesday evening the animal death toll included 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, 6 black bears, 3 mountain lions, 2 grizzlies, a baboon, and a wolf.

Only six animals from the farm—three leopards, a grizzly bear, and two monkeys—were captured alive.

(Watch National Geographic video on the exotic-animal escape in Ohio.)

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz defended the shootings, telling reporters that his officers had only about an hour before sunset to control the situation, and they didn't have immediate access to tranquilizer darts.

Most experts agreed that the Ohio officers had little choice but to kill the animals.

Unlike in television and movie portrayals, real tranquilizers take time to take effect, and the impact of a dart can make an animal aggressive or cause it to run.

Sedation "doesn't happen immediately," said Leigh Henry, a senior policy officer with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In fact, a vet from a local zoo shot one of the tigers with a tranquilizer dart. But the animal started to run off, forcing officers to shoot and kill it.

Henry said that she believes the Ohio police did what was necessary.

"I'm not going to say who was right or wrong," she said. "I certainly wouldn't judge them for taking the actions that they did, when their primary responsibility was the safety of their community."

(See pictures of exotic animals rescued at the L.A. airport.)

Exotic Animal Shootings Highlight Need for Better Regs

Luke Dollar, program officer for National Geographic's Big Cats conservation initiative, said the public discussion should focus not on whether the animals should have been shot but on an absence of relevant legislation, which allowed Thompson's exotic-animal farm to exist in the first place.

"I hope we don't use this as a misdirected excuse to vilify or 'armchair quarterback' the men and women of law enforcement who were responding to an uncertain and dynamic situation with little chance of any good outcomes," Dollar said.

"This became an incident waiting to happen as soon as Thompson was able to buy that first tiger, then a lion, and so on. With proper legislation or regulation, we can prevent this from happening again."

(See why some conservationists call privately held exotic animals "ticking time bombs.")

Ohio is one of at least eight U.S. states that don't regulate ownership of exotic animals. It's also one of the few states that don't require residents to be federally licensed to keep wild animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While what Thompson did may not have been technically illegal, by many accounts his treatment of the animals was unethical. Thompson had been reported for animal cruelty numerous times, and attempts had been made to confiscate the creatures on his farm.

More Tigers Captive Than Wild?

The Ohio animal shootings also cast a spotlight specifically on the increasing number of captive tigers in the United States.

According to a recent WWF report, there are an estimated 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S.—a number that far exceeds the approximately 3,200 individuals believed to exist in the wild.

Captive tigers in the U.S. are often given as gifts when they're cubs. Owners later realize they don't want to care for the big cats when they grow older and more dangerous.

"What you end up with is a situation ripe for exploitation," said WWF's Henry, who was a co-author on the tiger report.

"Under the current system, parts from these domestic tigers in the U.S. can easily enter the illegal medicine market, and our concern is that that will help perpetuate or increase the demand for tiger products.

"That in turn will increase the threat to wild tigers," since parts from wild animals are perceived as being more valuable.

How Can People and Exotic Animals Coexist?

Laly Lichtenfeld, a wildlife conservationist and the executive director of the African People & Wildlife Fund, also worries that the Ohio incident will send the wrong message about how people in the U.S. feel about wild animals.

"I work directly with local communities [in Africa] who live with large animals like lions and elephants on a daily basis," said Lichtenfeld, who is also a National Geographic Society grantee. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

"We're working very hard to find a way for people to do that, which is both safe for those people and the wildlife. So when something like this happens, it really calls into question whether there's a double standard," she said.

"When there are large animals in our backyard, we don't want them, but we're hoping that the rest of the global community will tolerate them.

"We really need to take an inward look at that."