Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What If It Happened To You?

 Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

You may remember the news story back in 2011 about Terry Thompson, the Zanesville, Ohio, resident who released all of his exotic animals and then apparently committed suicide* (please see note at the end of this post). His animals were then hunted down by law enforcement and killed for no reason that ever made any sense to me. These were beautiful lions and rare Bengal tigers who could have been humanely trapped and relocated to exotic animal sanctuaries. Instead, sheriff's deputies killed 48 animals. The devastation was heartbreaking.

After that incident, Ohio's legislators took a long look at private ownership of exotic animals and in 2012, made some changes to State law. The new law imposes an almost total ban on the purchase, sale, or breeding of an array of animals, including lions, tigers, bears, elephants, certain monkeys, rhinos, alligators, crocodiles, anacondas and pythons longer than 12 feet, and all venomous snakes. The new rules included exemptions for zoos, research facilities, and circuses. For the first time, private owners were required to apply for State permits, and had to be in compliance with new State codes that included sterilizing the animals, and meeting minimum standards for cages and care. It all seemed very reasonable in the wake of the Zanesville massacre, but the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) is proving uncomfortably zealous with one specific - and troubling - case, that of Stony Ridge, Ohio, resident and Tiger Ridge Exotics owner Kenny Hetrick.

If you've read either of my books (Crazy Critter Lady, and No Better Medicine, both available on amazon), you might remember me mentioning Kenny the Tiger Guy. Kenny is a local fellow who's been rescuing exotic animals for 40 years. Because lions and tigers eat a lot, people often donate critters to Kenny for slaughter. Usually, it's horses, but the odd donkey has come his way as well. 
The thing I like about Kenny is that he's uncomfortable slaughtering healthy animals. There are, unfortunately, a number of people in the world who give away horses that are perfectly healthy. Sometimes, the owners simply tire of them, and hand them off to Kenny, knowing in advance what he'll do with them. But twice, now, Kenny's conscience has gotten the better of him, and he's called The Healing Barn, asking if they'd be willing to take a donkey. And twice, the Barn has said, "Yes." So far, we've enjoyed a number of years with two distinctly different but entirely lovable donkeys, thanks to Kenny. In addition, I've been to visit Tiger Ridge Exotics, and I can tell you that Kenny's animals have always been well-taken-care-of, and deeply loved, by Kenny, his late wife, and his daughter, which makes the events of January 28th, 2015 so troubling.

On January 28th, in a ODA co-ordinated raid, masked men converged on the sanctuary, tranquilized 11 of the animals - and in at least one case, had to shoot a bear repeatedly with darts before they were able to properly sedate him - and transported them to a new, state-of-the-art temporary holding facility in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. The excuse given for the seizure was that Kenny was not in compliance with the new State regulations. While it's true that Hetrick was over 200 days past the deadline for applying for his State permit, he was already in possession of - and in compliance with - a USDA permit, and USDA requirements. He no doubt assumed that this would buy him sufficient time to become ODA-compliant. Sadly, he was wrong.

The case is currently bouncing around from the local courts - who have ordered the return of the animals, to a hearing presided over by ODA officials who will decide whether to overturn their denial of Hetrick's permit application. In the midst of all the proceedings, the ODA has asked for numerous continuances, although it is unclear what the thinking behind their stalling tactics is.

It's worth noting that the ODA raid on Tiger Ridge Exotics came out of the blue and with no forewarning. While the reason for that may seem obvious - Kenny might've been able to move or hide his animals had he known of the raid in advance - the problem with an impromptu raid becomes clear when it's known that elderly animals who are going to be tranquilized are meant to be sedated on empty stomachs; doing so otherwise poses health risks. Given that Kenny - a longtime owner of exotic critters - took a course on proper sedation methods, you would think that a State agency whose job includes seizing exotic animals would also know about correct sedation methods. Hetrick's daughter, Corinna, was later quoted as saying: 

“They tore cages apart. They tore property apart. They tore all our stuff up out there. They were dragging the animals out in the cold, they were tranquilizing them, and they were slapping them with sticks.”

Corrina added that putting them in the warm [heated] environment in Reynoldsburg was not necessarily a good thing, especially for a bear in hibernation, or an animal that will lose its winter coat. "You know, they're old. You don’t tranquilize an animal like that without just cause,” Corinna said. “You only tranquilize in an emergency situation or for health reasons. That’s like a 90-year-old man going under anesthesia for a broken finger — you don't do it." 

It's also worth noting that at no time did the ODA ask either Kenny or his veterinarian (a well-respected vet who specializes in large critters) whether the seized animals had any special health issues, specific dietary requirements, or prescription medications that needed to be addressed. In fact, the ODA simply took the animals and left. In the time since the raid, the ODA has behaved as though they've already been awarded permanent custody of Hetrick's animals: they have refused all requests by Hetrick and his retinue to visit the animals, and his vet has been denied access to them as well.

Recently, though, in what can only be considered a "courtesy call," the ODA lifted its veil of silence long enough to call Hetrick's vet and inform him of their decision to euthanize one of the animals. Mind you, Hetrick's vet wasn't asked to consult before the procedure took place; the ODA was merely doing a bit of CYA by disclosing the decision. Their reason for that decision: the lion in question was refusing to eat, was having difficulty walking, and, in the words of the ODA, was "shutting down." Let's examine their claims:

Leo was a 19 year-old lion with hip dysplasia. He had never lived anywhere but at Tiger Ridge, in an outdoor enclosure with dirt and grass, and a shelter provided. He was accustomed to eating fresh horse meat, and required a four-times-daily supplement for his dysplasia. After being seized, he was placed in an indoor cell on a cement pad, and he was fed a meat-like nutritional substance but no dysplasia supplement. Are the problems becoming apparent to you yet?

It would appear that the ODA, rather than trying a few obvious changes such as a different diet, and maybe something softer than cement for the lion to lie on, decided that the easiest course of action was simply to euthanize the animal in their care. Did I just use the word "care"? Because that word doesn't seem to accurately reflect the treatment of the Tiger Ridge animals who are currently in ODA custody.

As a writer, and a passionate lover of animals, I felt compelled, after the ODA seizure debacle and subsequent killing of Leo the lion, to take pen in hand and start writing in an attempt to expose the travesty that is still going on as of this blog posting (April 22, 2015). Below, you will see the letter that I submitted to a number of newspapers in my area. Unfortunately, I think that it has proven too inflammatory for most of them, as it has, thus far, only been printed in one paper. Which is why I'm including it in this blog. And while the case involves an Ohio man, please don't think for a minute that your voice in another state doesn't matter. It does! Indeed, if elected officials want to get re-elected, they need the approval of constituents everywhere : what starts at the State level generally ends up influencing the Federal level.

And while I'm all in favor of a tighter rein on exotic animal-keeping, and exotic animal care and welfare, I'm also very mindful of this one question: what if it happened to you? What if masked men invaded your home, took your beloved animals away, and fought vociferously against returning them? And then, while a magistrate was giving the matter some thought, what if they euthanized one of those beloved animals without allowing you to do so much as say good-bye to it, invite your vet to come to the facility and assess the lion himself, or take possession of its ashes after the cremation? So I ask you, after you have read the letter below, please consider adding your voice to the grass-roots effort of Kenny the Tiger Guy and his supporters by calling the ODA and letting them know that their actions in the Tiger Ridge Exotics case are not acceptable. My letter reads as follows:

To the Editor: As if having his beloved animals confiscated on January 28 wasn't bad enough, now Tiger Ridge Exotics owner Ken Hetrick must grieve the loss of Leo the lion, who was euthanized recently by the same entity that took him over two months ago: the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Operating behind a veil of secrecy and a communication blackout, the ODA said only that the lion had stopped eating and was beginning to shut down. 
Refusing to take any responsibility for the lion's declining health, the ODA conveniently left out the fact that they had changed the lion's diet and refused to maintain the hip dysplasia supplement that Hetrick had been giving the lion as per his veterinarian's recommendation. Indeed, not only has the ODA refused to hold itself accountable for a variety of problems with the seized animals, they destroyed the lion's corpse by cremating it in a chemical process known as alkaline hydrolysis. ODA will no doubt claim that this was for reasons of hygiene and public health, but it also destroys any evidence of their wrong-doing in the process. Which makes one wonder what, exactly, the ODA is trying to hide?

This farce must end! Ken Hetrick has held a Federal license, and been in full Federal compliance, for years. ODA in their zeal have chosen to ignore that fact. But if the Federal government is satisfied with Hetrick's set-up, why isn't ODA? Why does the ODA continue to act with secrecy, refusing to have any contact with Hetrick, his lawyer, or his veterinarian? Only an outcry from the public will change this situation. Please consider adding your voice by calling the ODA at 614-728-6201.

That's all for now, Folks. Thank you for taking the time to read about this tragedy. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters! 

* Author's note: It has come to my attention that there is a large contingent of people who believe that Terry Thompson did not kill himself but was actually murdered. I can't comment on this because I have no facts to support the theory. What I can say is that there seems to be a fair amount of mystery about what happened in Zanesville, and that the truth may never be known.