A wild animal outbreak a year ago in southern Ohio is the driving force behind a new law that requires jurisdictions to establish special response teams.
Sheriff’s deputies and others shot 46 of the 56 animals that escaped or were set loose at Muskingum County Animal Farm in March 2012. The dead animals included a wolf, six black bears, two grizzly bears, nine male lions, eight lionesses, a baboon, three mountain lions and 18 tigers. They were buried at the site where they were killed.
Authorities later revealed the owner of the wild animal preserve, Terry Thompson, threw open the cages of most of the animals and then committed suicide.
In the months afterward, Ohio set about trying to tighten the reins on exotic animal ownership across the Buckeye State. Authorities have also built a wild animal containment facility near Reynoldsburg for confiscated animals.
The Ottawa County commissioners recently approved the county’s response team roster. It includes Fred Petersen, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, Port Clinton Fire Chief Kent Johnson, county health commissioner Nancy Osborn, commissioner Jim Sass, sheriff’s department chief deputy Jeff Hickman, Red Cross Director Beth Leggett and News Herald reporter Catherine Hadley.
“Realistically this is a planning team,” Petersen said, noting the state required the team to have a plan in place by February of 2014.
The group is required to have a dangerous wild animal owner representative as part of the team. Since there are none registered in Ottawa County, Andy Birr of the Toledo Zoo has agreed to serve on the team, Petersen said.
“They have a pretty rigorous program there we can learn from,” Petersen said of precautions put in place at the zoo to ensure public safety.
The new team will get together over the next few months and look at the state guidelines they’re developing ….” Petersen said. “I don’t see it being a big deal. We already have a pretty good emergency response program in place.”
Ottawa County is far from the southeastern Ohio roads where the wild animals were released near Zanesville, causing home lockdown and school closings.
But it has had a few cases over the years involving wild animals.
An animal said to be a bobcat or cougar reportedly crept along farm fields and tree lines from Elmore to Oak Harbor two years ago, according to Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Operations Brad York. An elementary school in Oak Harbor was put on lockdown and Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials aided Oak Harbor police in the search. Officials said they only found deer tracks in the area.
And in the early 1980s, there had been a couple of animal breakouts at a wildlife park in Danbury Township.
“One of them was a cat, a panther, I believe. But I can’t remember what the other was,” said York, who served on the Danbury Township Police Department at the time. He could not recall details about the incidents but said that no one was injured before the animals were recaptured.