They weigh nearly 500 pounds, reach 10 feet in length, and look gorgeous, with muscles rippling through their striped orange-and-black coats. An adult Bengal tiger could be yours for about $700.
If you could take one home, you'd need much deeper pockets. (Tigers such as those that were kept at a farm in Zanesville, Ohio, can eat more than 20 pounds of meat a day.) But Maryland doesn't allow residents to own a tiger or any other large and dangerous animal.
The owner of the Zanesville farm, Terry Thompson, who apparently killed himself, had 18 Bengals, 17 lions and eight bears in his menagerie of 56 exotic animals. Forty-eight of the animals were shot dead last week after Thompson freed them.
"This is a highlight-reel example of why Maryland is so restrictive" of ownership of exotic wildlife, said Paul A. Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the state's Department of Natural Resources.
At least 20 exotic-animal farms were reported to exist in Ohio. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has come under fire for lax laws regulating the ownership of exotic beasts. Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the national Humane Society, said that Ohio "has become a Wild West situation" for the ownership of dangerous animals.
"We're fortunate that we've had the high ground on this issue for decades," Peditto said. "It's much more difficult when the door is open to try to close it."
Owners of exotic animals who move to Maryland with their pets get a rude awakening when they're discovered. The animals are illegal, the owners are told. They are generally given 45 days to find an alternative home. If an animal has health problems, it is immediately removed.
"We will hear on occasion people say, 'I was allowed to keep them in State X. I didn't know they were illegal here,' " Peditto said. "We don't have a whole lot of sympathy for that excuse. If you're an owner . . . who likes to keep these pets, you know they're highly regulated."
Unlike Maryland, Virginia does allow ownership of big cats. The Humane Society of the United States recently accused the state of having "little oversight of exotic animal ownership." Virginia requires "a permit for big cats, bears and wolves with no regulation at all for primates," the society said in a news release.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) expressed concern about public safety and vowed to look into the state code, a spokesman said.
Last week's incident has brought more scrutiny of exotic animals and their owners. Ohio resident Amy Rausch said she easily pays and cares for the eight monkeys she owns, with "monkey biscuit" ($25 a bag) and produce from her garden. An owner whom Rausch said she knows feeds his exotic cats with horses that are about to be put down for injuries such as broken legs.
"Horse meat, I know it's not in our culture to eat it, but other cultures eat it. Animals eat it," she said.
The public and government officials are overreacting to the events in Zanesville, she said. "That's just not a normal scenario."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun