Saturday, February 11, 2012

An interesting article on the Zanesville massacre

Terry Thompson and the Zanesville Ohio Zoo Massacre: Newsmakers: GQ

This is a very well written article on the Zanesville exotic animal massacre and the man behind it.  It made me think of the great documentary "The Elephant in the Living Room," about people who have exotic animals, and also the series "Fatal Attractions" on Animal Planet, about people who have exotic animals and eventually are killed by them.

I can completely understand the attraction to have a wild animal.  In fact, I'd have several myself, if it were not for my over-riding concern about what is best for the animals.  There is no question in my mind that it would not be best for an exotic animals to be in my home.  I believe they belong in the wild, and that we should do nothing to promote their capture, sale or breeding to private citizens.  I believe zoos serve a valid conservation and education purpose, but generally speaking, it is still sad to visit them and see animals in captivity.  It is especially heartbreaking after seeing them in the wild to see them in a zoo, and beyond heartbreaking to see them in a home or "private zoo" setting.

As a kid, I loved the zoo.  One of my first memories of doing any activity outside the home was visiting the Detroit zoo when my family lived in Detroit.  We moved away when I was three, so I had to be younger than three.  I can still remember vivid scenes of the animals.  The first lion, the first elephant, the first zebra I saw in real life.  Wow, I was impressed.  I was with my mom.  I never had an easy relationship with her, and I don't know how she came to take me to the zoo that day.  I remember it was raining, and I wanted to stay all day anyway.  We shared an umbrella.  We shared a hot pretzel with cheese - my first - another vivid memory of that day.  I remember the male gorilla I saw behind glass, and how I thought he looked sad.  I remember a conversation with my mom about that...not the words, I just remember asking her about it and that she did say something about it.  I remember looking into the gorilla's eyes, and hearing her voice while I did.  I always visit zoos when on business or leisure trips around the world.  There is no question my love of animals and my early exposure to the zoo inspired me later in life to visit animals in the wild and see them in their natural habitats, where they belong.

After seeing elephants in the wild, it was painful to see them in the zoo.  It is no way for an elephant to live.  Yes, maybe it is better than death and it serves an educational purpose, but it is tragic how little most zoos can provide for elephants compared to what they have in the wild - large family groups, a variety of vegetation, lots of various terrain, etc.  Seeing an elephant standing alone in a small concrete space was so heartbreaking I couldn't look.  It is just so very cruel.

Though I would love to be near an elephant every day, there is nothing, I hope, that could make me forget that is not what would be best for the elephant.  I simply can't provide a suitable elephant environment.  Nor could I provide an appropriate lion, tiger, bear, wold, serval, or any other exotic animal environment.  Life in a cage is not fair; life away from your own kind is lonely.  Not being able to act on your instincts is cruel.  It is not appropriate to force animals to live in captivity because they are beautiful, powerful, exotic, or even because one loves them.  Certainly it is wrong to keep animals in captivity because of how they make you feel.

There is no question that being near exotic animals is thrilling.  Outside the U.S., regulations are lax - you can go inside tiger cages, play with lion cubs, ride elephants, pet cheetahs.  I admit that from time to time in my travels I have done some of these things...because the opportunity was there, and because not doing it would not change anything.  For example, there is a zoo in Africa where, for a small tip to the zookeeper, you can go inside the cage and pet the cheetahs.  Those cheetahs are going to live in the zoo whether I do that or not.  They were actually rescued orphans and can't be returned to the wild as they never learned how to hunt; a skill that wild cheetahs have to learn from their mothers over time.  I'm not supporting cheetah capture or altering the lives of the cheetahs for the worse.  And the draw is amazing.  To know what a cheetah feels like (their coat is rough, almost like a bristle brush, not soft), to hear their purr (really deep, closer to a dog growl than a domestic cat purr), to see their expressions (happiness at a belly rub, jealousy at the other cheetah getting a belly rub, etc.) to feel their heart beat in their huge chests and watch their tails flip back and forth in the red dirt.....well it's amazing.  And yes, I think how amazing it would be to have one.....but I never would.

I completely and totally understand the attraction people have to the idea of having their own exotic animals.  I would get in the cage with the lions, the tigers, the wolves, the bears....I am not inherently afraid of animals.  I would also be the kind who doesn't have the animals in cages.  (I'd have my horse in the house if I could.)  When an animal powerful enough to kill you in a second chooses not to kill you, it's an amazing feeling.  It is easy to feel special in that moment.  When an animal that could kill you in a second seems affectionate towards you or happy to see you, you can feel beyond special - you can believe you have a unique bond with that animal.  Something about you is special and the animal knows it and your connection with that animal is like no other....people believe it.  You can't help it.  It has a seductive power that can blind you to reality and to danger.  That is how people who have raised a pet tiger they love more than anything in the world one day find themselves injured because they turned their back and lit up the tiger's prey drive with a sudden movement and "play" to the tiger results in injury to the human.  I never blame the animal in those situations; the blame does not lie with them.

Being attracted to exotic animals is completely understandable, but taking the wrong turn of accumulating them is selfish and irresponsible.  Terry Thompson had animals because of how they made him feel.  And while I am sure they made him feel great, how did they feel?  This is a man who had serious emotional issues.  The animals were innocent victims and whether he meant to hurt them or not doesn't matter.  While I am sure he did love his animals on some level, what he loved about them was likely their beauty and the way they made him feel special, powerful and unique.  Real love is putting the animal's needs above your own, caring more about how the animal feels and whether its emotional, mental and physical needs are met than about yourself....and thus, most of the time, not acquiring or owning animals.  One person can only care for so many animals well...though there is no magic number for all people, there is no question Terry Thompson was way over the limit no matter how you look at it.

It is a tragedy for his animals that he did what he did.  Maybe if it leads to laws that exotic animals cannot be privately owned that will be a benefit that comes of this, though not one worth the cost.  It is horrible that law enforcement was put in the position of putting down these animals and that they could not be captured alive.  Everything about the situation is a tragedy, though no innocent people were harmed by any of the animals, which is good - because there would be those who blamed the animals for being animals.  At least this way it is clear that the only evil or malice was man's. 

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