The news of the tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio hit the zoo field hard. The death of so many animals is always hard to take, even if the outcome was the best option for everyone involved. The sheriff’s department has gotten a huge amount of negative press for the death of 48 exotics kept at the Terry Thompson’s “wildlife park”. But zoo professionals around the country agreed with Jack Hanna, former Columbus Zoo director. “I’m sorry to say, but what the sheriff did had to be done,” Hanna said in an interview with ABC New’s Diane Sawyer . “Otherwise, we would have had carnage out here in Zanesville, Ohio.” His comments about the difficulties of tranquilizing animals were spot on. There are multiple reasons why tranquilizers were not the answer in Zanesville.
Emergency calls relating to escaped exotic animal sightings started late in the afternoon on October 18. Multiple large predators had already made their way out of the original compound and were showing up along highways and in neighbors’ backyards. Dusk was fast approaching, and the number of escaped animals was still unknown. Those animals needed to be controlled immediately. There was no time to wait for trained staff and tranquilizer guns. Any animal outside of the farm’s perimeter fence needed to be put down immediately in the interest of public safety. What would have happened if a child had been sent to take out the trash and been mauled by a tiger?
So many people have asked the question “Why did the animals have to die? Why couldn’t they just be tranquilized?” People who ask this question generally have a vision in their head of an animal on the plains of Africa being shot with a dart and immediately falling to the ground, dead asleep. Tranquilizers don’t work that way. The drug is injected into the muscle of the animal, usually in an easy-to-hit spot such as the hind flank. No matter how powerful the drug, it can take up to ten minutes to make it’s way into the blood stream and render the animal unconscious. And this only happen with a lot of “ifs” beforehand.
IF the dart hits the animal. A tranquilizer gun is less like a firearm and more like shooting arrows. Darts are slower and less accurate than bullets. A trained professional can be extremely accurate with a dart gun, but no trained professionals were available with enough time to keep people safe.
IF the dart injected all of the drug into the animal. Sometimes when a dart hits, the plunger doesn’t go down all the way. The animal might reach around and pull the dart out of it’s butt. In a controlled setting, another dart can be fired if the first one malfunctions. When an animal is able to run away from the shooter, there may not be another chance to shoot.
IF the dosage was correct. Dosages are based on the weight of the animal, which was not known about any of the animals in the compound. Too much drug, and you’ve killed the animal with an overdose. Too little, and the animal is still too dangerous to contain. An animal running on adrenaline may need two or three times the dose to render it under control.
IF the drug was the right one. Different taxa of animals respond differently to any of the available tranquilizers used for large animals. The same drug wouldn’t have been equally effective for cats, bears, and wolves.
Lets say everything goes right and the dart does go in and injects the correct dosage of drugs into the animal. It will still take at least ten minutes for the drug to take effect. Animals that have been darted do not just politely mill around and wait to fall asleep. A darted animal does one of two things; attacks the shooter or any other person, or runs away. With nightfall approaching, there would have been no way to effectively track down that many tranquilized animals in the dark before the drugs wore off. They actually did try to tranquilize a tiger after the equipment had shown up, and the tiger attacked. It was shot and killed anyway. Tranquilizing those animals outside of the compound was not a viable option.
But what about the animals in the compound? If the animals were contained, wouldn’t it have been easier to use the tranquilizer equipment? In theory, the answer is yes. But the perimeter fence surrounding the compound was ineffective at keeping the animals inside. Several were killed as they escaped the perimeter fence; climbing through holes or jumping over low spots. How many more animals would have escaped and dispersed into neighborhoods while waiting for tranquilizers and trained personnel?
Making everything more complicated was the suicide of Terry Thompson. When authorities were finally able to get to the compound, Thompson’s body was laying in the driveway. Officers could not determine if he was still alive because one of the tigers was crouched over the body. Not knowing what had happened to Thompson, it was the officers’ duty to recover the body as soon as possible in case something could be done to save his life. While some might argue that Thompson deserved to die, it was not the job of the police to determine if he “should” be saved. Their only duty and concern was to make all attempts to recover Thompson, which in this case necessitated killing several aggressive animals in the compound.
Could more of the Zanesville animals have been saved? Maybe. It is possible that a few more animals might be alive if tranquilizers had been available, but most of those animals were dead as soon as their cage doors were opened. The idea that “none of them had to die” is just flat-out wrong. The sheriff’s department is in charge of public safety. Their number one job is to protect the public. They did what they had to do to prevent the loss of human life. In a state like Ohio with little regulation on exotic pet ownership, it would be smart for the authorities to be prepared for such an emergency by training their staff to handle tranquilizers. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from our mistakes.
Ellen Vossekuil has been a zoo keeper at an AZA accredited zoo for five years. She has been involved in many animal care situations that required the use of tranquilizers, both for routine procedures and emergency response.