It’s not the kind of news story you read every day. “Dozens of exotic animals, including bears, lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes and camels… on the prowl in eastern Ohio…” I found the media’s ubiquitous use of the word “exotic” interesting, as I had always considered the word to have an “unusual” connotation, and I don’t think lions and tigers are all that unusual since pretty much any zoo worth visiting has a few. (Let’s talk about Komodo dragons or a giant squid!) But I suppose it’s pretty unusual for Bengal tigers to be running free around a town like Zanesville, Ohio.
By now we all know the basic facts: 62-year-old Terry Thompson owned a “wild animal farm,” and on Tuesday he apparently set his animals free and killed himself. Local sheriffs and deputies ended up having to kill most of the animals as tranquilizing was not really in the logistics for public safety as nightfall ensued – something that even animal rights activists seem to be conceding, though sadly.
Thompson had a history of violations and fines related to the animals he owned, and many are asking why he was still allowed to keep these animals. USAToday points to “patchwork of state and federal regulations governing the private ownership of exotic animals” and says that “Ohio is one of eight states that have little to no regulation of exotic animals.” As a result, the Humane Society says “the state has among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by exotic pets.” So it’s not too surprising that this event occurred in Ohio.
I think the patchwork of regulations is a feature, not a bug. This is a great example of a “states rights” issue where the federal government doesn’t have to spend time trying to find an optimal “one-size-fits-all” solution. Each state comes up with its own solution based (ostensibly) on the preferences of its residents: Some states ban private ownership of these exotic animals; some states allow some animals; some states require permits or licenses; some have created virtually no rules whatsoever. As the results of these different regulations play out over time, each state can adjust their position if they feel it is inadequate. Perhaps Ohio will decide it needs to shift a little farther along the scale of regulation to reduce the chance of another incident like this. And that’s for Ohio to decide.
But it’s a complicated decision due to the negative externalities at work here. It’s pretty terrifying to read USAToday’s account about the neighbor who “was home Tuesday night when an African lion, a mountain lion and three bears climbed over the fence and onto his cattle ranch.” If your neighbor owns a bunch of wolves, they present a danger to your safety and property if they escape. And when it comes to the law, both the left and the right tend to agree on illegalizing clear negative externalities. I don’t think any reasonable person would have a problem making it illegal to let your pet lion run loose around town.
The question is what to do when someone breaks that law. The right to let a lion loose is different from the right to keep a lion, and it is here where opposing principles can diverge. The externality is already illegal. The Left’s response is that the law didn’t prevent the externality, and we need to remove the catalyst (e.g. keeping a lion) to prevent the externality, even though the catalyst may not be harmful in itself. The Right’s response is that if the law-breaker is going to break the existing law, he or she is unlikely to refrain from breaking a new law as well, and by illegalizing both the externality and the catalyst, you are only hurting the law-keepers who aren’t causing any harm with their catalyst.
The parallels to gun control are enormous, as issues like these reveal fundamental ideas about a person’s interactions with society. But as with gun control, it is not a solution to simply point out that the Left’s solution is not a solution. In these situations, I think the Right tends to favor proper punishment for breaking the law regarding the externality. This acts as a disincentive for breaking the law. But it also acts as a method for forfeiting the right to the catalyst if you prove yourself irresponsible of preventing the externalities from occurring. And it doesn’t simultaneously punish everyone else who is being responsible. People are allowed to keep guns, but if they do too many bad things with them, they’re not allowed to keep them anymore. The specifics of “too many bad things” are decided by each local community.
But between the law and the punishment, you still have the chance of the externality happening before the individual loses the right to the catalyst, and it is the fear of this externality that drives the call to ban the catalyst entirely, be it guns or mountain lions. I simply view this as part of the risk of living in a free society. If the danger of the externality was extremely high, the risk might not be worth preserving the catalyst. But Thompson wasn’t setting off nuclear weapons. He let loose some frightening animals. And no human died or was even attacked. And the statistics suggest we didn’t just get lucky.
“How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals?” asks the head of the Humane Society in the USAToday article. It’s a good question, but how many incidents are we cataloging? A USAToday editorial called “Wild animals aren’t pets” dutifully lists the scariest stories, but an opposing view claims that exotic animals kill an average of 3.25 people per year in our country of 300,000,000 people, while “traffic accidents kill about 125 people per day.” Additionally, many of the exotic animal deaths are those of the animal’s owners (as opposed to the negative externality of the deaths of neighbors or random people). If 3-4 deaths per year from exotic animals means we need to ban the right to keep them, then what do we do with the vehicles that kill 45,000 people per year?
Now you may be ethically opposed to keeping animals in captivity, in which case you do not want people to own them even if there are no negative externalities involved whatsoever. But you can’t let the emotional terror of a mountain lion in your backyard overpower the facts. From a practical standpoint of public safety, the facts do not indicate that keeping exotic animals is very dangerous. If 125 people were being killed every day by pet tigers, that might indicate enough of a public safety threat to overrule the freedom of keeping them. Even then we might be able to explore regulatory solutions that mitigate the externalities without destroying the freedom of the catalyst. But when 15,000 people are killed in traffic accidents for every one killed by an exotic animal, I think we have different priorities.