Thursday, October 20, 2011

56 dangerous animals on the loose--what would you do?

"Ohio police kill 48 exotic animals," including 18 tigers and 17 lions.  Just before the animal farm owner killed himself, he released his 56 dangerous pets.  Responding to a 911 call, the sheriff and deputies of Muskingum County, Ohio shot most of the animals.   A few were rescued alive, felled by tranquilizer darts.  Photos of massacre.

With night falling on Tuesday, Sheriff Matt Lutz was under terrific pressure. "These animals were on the move, and they were showing aggressive behaviour."

"The sheriff defended the shootings, saying police had just an hour or so before it got dark on Tuesday, and that they were not carrying tranquiliser darts."

Since the Sheriff said there had been many problems with the animal farm, with previous escapes, one can ask:  Why weren't they equipped with dart guns?

Jack Hanna, former Director of the Columbus Zoo, defended* the Sheriff: "What was he to do at night time with tigers, lions and leopards, going out there?"  "In the wild, this would be a different situation." "If you had 18 Bengal tigers running around, you folks wouldn't want to see what would happen."

One tiger crossing a local highway was hit by a car and injured.  "Amid the confusion, there were multiple sightings of exotic animals up to about 10 miles (16km) away."

But in my direct experience, when the media gets the public excited, people will report a deer bounding across a field as an exotic animal.  Or as Bigfoot.

Many of the animals were shot as they stood outside of their open pens.

Innocent till proven aggressive

I'd hate to be the Sheriff.  It's impossible to second-guess him, because I wasn't there, and we still don't have all the facts.

But that said, I think it's worthwhile to think about what might have been the best response.  When faced with a complex, confusing situation, basing your response on ethics can show the way.  After all, some scientists claim that ethics are a "rule of thumb," based on generations of human experience in dealing with difficult choices.

Innocent until proven guilty. Why shouldn't that be applied to animals?

How dangerous were the escaped predators?  Most people assume the worst--wild beasts, stalking little children in the dark.  But these were treated like pets.  They were probably terrified of being outdoors on their own.  People remaining inside their vehicles or homes would be completely safe.  The biggest danger would be to farm animals, or from vehicles hitting bulky beasts on the highway.

And hysteria's a danger--but that should be manageable.  Is it justified to kill scores of innocent animals, because some people are afraid?  There certainly was some risk to the public.  But I'd like to think there's a more reasoned, nuanced response, than simply giving an execution order for all the animals--both those roaming along with those standing patiently by their cages, waiting for their next meal.

If a man pulls a gun on an officer, he can respond with lethal force.  That's permissible, because it's clear that pulling a gun is a serious threat, and police know how to read human behavior.

But police aren't trained in dealing with lions or grizzly bears.  How should a tiger's behavior be read?

Deputies said the animals acted aggressively.  How did they know?  Most animals would respond with alarm to the sound of shots nearby.  Is alarm the same as aggression?

Authorities displayed flashing signs on a nearby highway saying "Caution, exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."  Perhaps zoo officials could have been mobilized to go on the radio and talk to the public, to give them good advice and calm their fears, until the animals could have been rounded up.

Here's my first take on a plan for future escapes.  Let's see if it holds up, as more info comes in.  What do you think?

1. Planning

Officials should be ready for this kind of event, if there are any dangerous animals held captive in their area.  They should have plans, contacts at zoos, and tools for capture and restraint of animals.  They should have a "civil defense" plan for preventing hysteria and inappropriate behavior from the public.

If the Sheriff has been better prepared, perhaps it would have been necessary to kill only a few.

2. Anticipate animal behavior--keep them localized

The first assumption should be that the animals will remain close to their pens, and that they shouldn't be riled up.  They can be encouraged to remain there by providing food.  If you can get into the area to use a hand gun (as deputies did), why can't you throw an animal carcass from a pickup, to serve as food?

The whole animal farm was surrounded by a fence.  If you have to shoot, pick them off at the fence, rather than inside.  That way, you target the ones that roam, and keep the ones inside calm.

3. Treat them as individuals

If an animal leaves the area, it can be dealt with separately.  Assign a team to follow each roaming animal.  Keep the public indoors in that area.  Some are obviously more of a threat than others--these are all individuals.  Know your adversary.

4. "Rules of engagement"

Clear cut "rules of engagement" are needed for each species. When do you shoot, and when do you just follow? 

If a tiger shows aggressive or dangerous behavior beyond doubt, then it may be shot.  For example, one big cat was chasing a horse.  OK, shoot the cat.  But if the cat has already killed the horse, let it eat in peace.  That will keep the cat localized, while a darting team can be assembled.  The cat isn't really guilty of anything except being a hungry cat.

Setting these rules, at the start, is good leadership. Issuing orders to kill all, indiscriminately, is not good leadership.

Officials neglected public safety, and the animals
  1. Excessive and illegal trade in exotic animals is the root cause. "The Humane Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April."  Source
  2. Ohio is one of eight states with the weakest laws controlling exotic animals.
  3. Terry Thompson--the owner of the animals--had been in jail for a year, released just before this tragedy.  Didn't anyone in authority wonder--Who is caring for the animals?
  4. Thompson had numerous problems with the law.  There had been previous escapes.  Why weren't officials prepared?
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*  You can't expect Jack Hanna to criticise the Sheriff, because they were on the same team, working together.  Perhaps, if I had been dealt the same bad hand of poor planning and poor lawmaking, I would have been forced to do the same thing as Sheriff Lutz.  The point here--is to prepare, so it doesn't have to happen again.


  1. Shame on them for killing those animals. Sounds simply like lazy behavior on the sherrif's department to me. Why bother to take the time and effort to gather up tranqulizer darts get a helicopter out, search for animals' and put out a public warning when it is so much quicker and easier to shoot them and be done. Unbelivable !!


Comments are welcome.