Utah laws can prevent wild animal scares like that in Ohio

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 19 2011 7:34 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Ferocious predators on the prowl over night in Ohio echoes a similar scare on the southeastern Idaho border 16 years ago, and it represents the kind of nightmare scenario that Utah laws are intended to prevent.

The real-life safari hunt in Zanesville, Ohio, started Tuesday night when Terry Thompson opened the gates and cages at his animal farm, where he had permits to house exotic animals. According to investigators, he then shot himself to death.

Lions, bears, leopards and wolves ran loose, leaving a community in terror and barricaded in their homes.

"It's like Noah's Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," said wildlife expert Jack Hanna.

All the animals were either killed or recaptured, with one exception — a monkey that's still on the loose.

A similar episode in Idaho struck fear into residents of Lava Hot Springs in 1995. Nineteen lions, tigers and hybrid "ligers" escaped from a ramshackle facility known as "Ligertown." The privately owned collection of chicken-wire and plywood enclosures proved to be far too insecure to hold such dangerous predators.

Idaho deputies killed the last of the escaped cats several days later when it was found at a local elementary school, evidently stalking prey.

Officials in Utah say a tough wild-animal law here protects the public.

"The state law in Utah is very strict," said Mark Hadley of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "Basically it prohibits people from being able to have wild and dangerous animals in their possession."

It wasn't always so. John Paul Fox, chief investigator for the Humane Society of Utah, remembers numerous private zoos and wild animal collections in the 1970s and 1980s. "They were a big concern for us," Fox said. "Dirty cages, lack of veterinary care, poor diets."

The facilities were typically roadside tourist attractions or animal suppliers to movie companies. "There was a lack of security in all those facilities," Fox said. "You could just drive on the site, walk in among the grizzly bears or jaguars or cougars. There would be nobody there the whole time you'd be there at the facility."

Rising costs put most of them out of business, Fox said. But he also gives credit to a tougher law that was passed in the early 1990s. One wild animal facility was grandfathered in and allowed to stay in business. That was the Heber Valley farm where Doug Seus kept a one-time movie star, Bart The Bear. "But other than that one individual, we're not aware of anybody who has these types of animals in their possession."

The law applies to various animals including big cats, venomous snakes, wolves, alligators and bears. Public zoos are allowed to keep them if they're certified by the state. Two snake handling outfits also have special variances from the Utah Wildlife Board.

The board did grant another notorious exception in the late 1990s. Duchesne County rancher John Pinder was allowed to keep an African lion named Simba. In 1998, police captured the lion at a 7-11 convenience store in Vernal when Pinder drove it into town, unrestrained, in the back of his pickup truck. Later, Pinder was implicated in an unrelated double-murder on his ranch and he's currently serving a life sentence.

Fox believes others in Utah may be secretly keeping dangerous animals. "I think there is probably some wildlife, some big wildlife, big carnivores, including bears and cougars, that may be out there in somebody's backyard out in rural Utah that the Division of Wildlife Resources and we (the Humane Society) don't know about."

Fox cites two primary reasons people keep such animals.

"One is ego," Fox said. "They want to have the big bad animal. And the second one, I think, in their mind they have a desire to get something they think they can make money off of." He also said animals are sometimes used for scare purposes. "The narcotics people run into rattlesnakes in drug dealers' homes frequently," Fox said. "They use them to guard their drugs."

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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