Wild animals heading back to Zanesville following October ‘massacre’

Bengal Tiger & CubIf you think the issue of exotic animal ownership is going away any time soon, think again. With news Monday from the Ohio Department of Agriculture that five surviving animals from October’s bizarre tragedy at the Thompson farm near Zanesville will soon be returned to Marian Thompson, advocates on both sides of the issue lined up to comment.

To say the issue is divisive is understatement on a grand scale.

Almost no one is happy about the animals heading back to Muskingum County, but for their own – slightly varied – reasons. On one hand you have folks like Humane Society of the United States chief exec Wayne Pacelle who point out the absurdity of the unwashed masses owning lions, tigers and bears in the first place, while on the other you have animal lovers and private property rights advocates who argue that any effort to further curb animal ownership is a basic violation of their rights as U.S. citizens.

The truth, like most arguments, is probably somewhere in the middle. My point in writing about this issue is to not to stake out my own position on the underlying issue itself, but to consider the implications of such policy in the broader context of animal welfare and animal agriculture.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted on the underlying issue (though only slightly so) because I honestly believe I have no business rearing a tiger cub in my back yard – and I don’t think I personally know anyone else who does, either. That said, I am an ardent supporter of private property rights, and understand the argument that efforts by groups like HSUS are part of an overall activist agenda that ultimately leads to serious infringement on my rights to own farm animals or become a dog breeder.

Setting aside the underlying issue, the end of the Thompson animals’ quarantine harkens back to Ohio’s landmark agreement with HSUS on how animal care issues will be regulated in the Buckeye State. As Pacelle pointed out at his blog, it’s been 22 months since HSUS signed an agreement with Ohio agriculture leaders that included a call to ban private ownership of “dangerous wild animals.”

The provision in that agreement dealing with exotic animal ownership drew controversy then, and continues to do so today following passage of Ohio SB 310, legislation that would implement the ban agreed upon by HSUS and the ag leaders in 2010′s “Ohio Compromise.”

One letter to the editor summed opposition to the ban this way: “Innocent animals will be put to sleep at taxpayer’s expense just to appease out of state special interest groups.” The author accused farm groups, led by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, as “selling out” exotic animal owners, using them as a “bargaining chip” with HSUS to stave off a threatened ballot initiative targeting a number of food animal production practices.

Opponents of SB 310 (no companion legislation has been introduced in Ohio’s House of Representatives yet) say while the bill may only target some species considered “dangerous” at this point – e.g. lions, tigers and bears – the state could in theory add other animals to the ban at any time – e.g. foxes, coyotes, raccoons, pheasants or peacocks.

In taking a pragmatic view of the basic policy issue, I think it is reasonable to say that the exotic ownership issue was indeed a bargaining chip in negotiating the Ohio Compromise, and was considered as such by both sides. Pacelle noted at his blog that HSUS insisted on its inclusion, and a dispassionate observer could see why Ohio ag groups would throw little opposition to its inclusion: it is, in the abstract, a fairly tenuous connection between polar bears and Polled Herefords.

In reflecting on my own experience covering the situation in Ohio between HSUS and animal agriculture interests, I’ve observed a subtle shift in my own discernment on these issues. I still agree that HSUS and its allies hold as their ultimate goal a serious reduction if not outright prohibition of meat consumption in this country. That said, I’m far less prone to seeing the boogeyman around every corner today than I was five years ago.

Exotic animal ownership, stacked next to the broader picture of food animal production, makes perfect sense to “trade away” in a negotiation with HSUS. The poultry industry – faced with a similar conundrum last year, decided it made far more sense to acquiesce to a system of colony-style housing that met basic production needs than continue bleeding cash and consumer sentiment fighting for battery cages.

The pork industry is now faced with a similar inflection point relative to sow housing. (As an aside, I’ll be discussing that particular issue next week at PIC’s 50th Anniversary Symposium in Nashville.) At these types of strategic inflection points, it is important to take a broader view of the issue on a long-term horizon. Do you “stick to your guns” in the face of adversity, or do you find a different path to achieve an acceptable outcome? Sometimes the latter makes sense, other times the right thing to do is stand and fight.

One of the secrets to strategic success in scenarios ranging from military might to marital bliss is picking your battles and doing so wisely. When it comes to the big picture of animal agriculture, standing down on the issue of exotic animal ownership makes sense.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

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