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Exotic Pets No Strangers To Ohio


The story was stunning. Scores of exotic animals, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, as well as leopards, wolves, and monkeys set loose in Zanesville, Ohio this week, after the suicide death of the man who kept them. Sheriff's deputies said they had no choice to protect the public and killed 48 of the animals. Six were captured. One monkey is still missing.

Tim Harrison is a retired Ohio police officer and a specialist in dealing with exotic pets. He's the director of Outreach for Animals, and the subject of a new documentary, "The Elephant in the Living Room," about private ownership of exotic animals. He joins us now from the studios of a WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Mr. Harrison, thanks for being with us.

TIM HARRISON: And thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And are there any other instances in Ohio where we see this kind of compound of animals?

HARRISON: Well, there's quite a few. Our state is probably the biggest offender right now. Some say it's the number one for the sale of dangerous exotic animals, through auctions and, you know, through the, you know, trading post classified ads - things of that nature. And it's also the number one for people owning them.

SIMON: How does Ohio become a kind of capital of this?

HARRISON: Well, it kind of turned out that years ago these alleged rescue facilities, and un-credited zoos would bring their babies in when they had their little - you got to get your pictures taken at the mall or at the county fair with a baby tiger. You always wondered what happened to those zoo babies. They end up taking them to the Mount Hope exotic animal auction in the state of Ohio, just 80 miles north of Columbus. It's in the Amish country and the Amish auction them off.

They auction off hyenas. They auction off black leopard cubs, anything you want, as fast as they can bring them out.

SIMON: Mr. Harrison, as I don't have to tell you, there's been some controversy over shooting the number of animals that have been shot. What are your thoughts?

HARRISON: No police officer in the United States of America has a dart rifle in their cruiser. The sun was going down, Scott, at that period of time. They had to make a decision. Do we allow them to run free through our neighborhood here in Zanesville, or do we stop them now. And they had to choose to make the decision to stop the animals at this time.

SIMON: I've been told that you can almost trace the rise in people owning exotic animals to Animal Planet.

HARRISON: Before 1995, when reality TV started, we got maybe four or five a year in this area that I live in. And then all of a sudden, after 1995, we got over 102 calls the very next year of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. And every one of the people I asked: Why did you get this tiger cub, I saw it on Animal Planet. I thought I could do the same thing.

And you got to remember, Scott, the animals that are all these TV shows are surgically altered animals. They have their claws removed, their canines are sanded down, they're given medication to take the edge off - so they're kind of slowed down. It's like magic tricks.

And when real people go to these auctions or go to a flea market and buy themselves an alligator, it gets about three or four feet long, and it don't act like the one on TV. And they end up getting bit or hurt and that's when I had to step in. I'm like the last resort for the people and also for the animals.

SIMON: Mr. Harrison, thanks so much.

HARRISON: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.