Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tragic necessity

By now you've heard the story: On Tuesday evening, the owner of a private exotic-animal farm in Zanesville, Ohio, liberated his menagerie before taking his own life. A total of 56 animals -- including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, nine bears, four primates, three leopards and two gray wolves -- disappeared into the rainy twilight.

Deputies from the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office were dispatched to the scene where, with no realistic alternatives, they shot to kill. Wielding the tools they had -- patrol rifles and handguns -- they took down 49 animals.

Six of the escapees were captured and hauled off to the Columbus Zoo. A missing monkey is presumed to have fallen to one of the big cats.

The bizarre incident unfolded 35 miles east of the KintlaLake household. Since it happened it's been the hot topic at diners and dinner tables, water coolers and cash registers. Local news outlets have covered it thoroughly and well.

There's been an outpouring of public sorrow over the deaths of more than four dozen exotic animals, many of them endangered species. Predictably, Sheriff Matt Lutz is being criticized for issuing shoot-to-kill orders, by people who believe that authorities should've handled the situation with tranquilizer darts instead of live rounds.

That's just plain ignorant. I speak from some experience here, by the way -- my father was a veterinarian for more than four decades, and I witnessed him administer anesthesia, tranquilizers and euthanasia preparations to hundreds of animals. It's an unpredictable exercise, to put it mildly, but please don't take my word for that.

"It's not as simple as seeing the animal and taking a shot and it's going to go to sleep," said Gwen Myers, a veterinarian with the Columbus Zoo. Dr. Myers worked with deputies Tuesday night.

So did Barbara Wolfe, chief veterinarian for The Wilds, an animal preserve southeast of Zanesville. She told of shooting a tranquilizer dart into the neck of a 300-pound Bengal tiger -- bullseye. What followed, though, wasn't exactly made-for-Animal Planet fare.

"He sort of exploded," said Dr. Wolfe. "He roared, he got up, and he came straight for me."

Deputies were forced to open fire, killing the tiger.

Neighbors and friends of the farm's owner now are reminding us what a great guy he was, telling us how much he loved his exotic "babies," asking us to understand that he was yet another troubled veteran of the Vietnam War. And while all that may be true, the man's final act was to sentence 49 creatures entrusted to his care to certain death.

The deputies who responded to Kopchak Road in pouring rain and deepening darkness Tuesday night had no real training for what they faced and no choice but to do exactly what they did. They had neither the means nor the time to track, contain, subdue and capture.

Their duty, as we define it, is public safety, and human life trumps animal life. I doubt that any of these law-enforcement officers, many of whom probably are hunters, relished what they had to do.

They'd agree that the animals were innocent, the outcome tragic. The actions they took, however, were indisputably necessary.