The tragic events that unfolded outside Zanesville, Ohio, USA were on a scale that is hard to imagine happening in the UK. That said, animals do escape or, as in the Zanesville incident, are deliberately let loose, from zoos, circuses and from private keepers in this country – and this often end in tragedy.
Wild animals such as the bears, tigers, lions and other “exotic” animals owned by Mr. Thompson, while not common in the UK, feature among the wild animals kept as pets by private keepers: it may come as a surprise to some that an elephant, a polar bear, dozens of big cats, many primates and other potentially dangerous wild animals are currently kept in private hands in the UK.
The main legislation that covers the private keeping of such animals is the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 . This was put in place to protect the safety of the public at a time when wild animal ownership was prevalent and high-profile (Although it was not until 2006 that equivalent regulations were put in place in Northern Ireland). The law requires that animals of species judged to be particularly dangerous should be held securely, and licensed and inspected by their Local Authority in conjunction with a vet. To a great extent, what we have in the UK is light-years ahead of the unregulated situation in Ohio that led to the events at Zanesville; but it is widely acknowledged that there are problems with compliance and enforcement of the law in the UK, meaning that it is likely that there are many more dangerous animals in private hands than are officially licensed. Furthermore, it is possible that many incidents involving licensed and unlicensed wild animals go unreported each year in the UK.
A spokesman for the federal United States Department of Agricultre (USDA) said of Mr. Thompson’s menagerie: “Just to have them on his property … that’s not a USDA situation”. This is similar to the situation in the UK, where the licensing and inspection of such animals in private hands falls to Local Authorities, and the relevant central Government department responsible for the legislation is not directly involved and may be unaware of specific issues or the numbers of animals in kept privately across the country.
While we can hope that we may never see another massacre like that in Ohio, we should always be aware that while dangerous wild animals are kept privately or made to travel the country in circuses, it may only be a matter of time before another heartbreaking tragedy occurs in the UK. Our Government should not rest on its laurels, but look carefully at the legislation and consider whether it might not be time to end the keeping of wild animals outside licensed zoos.