Middle Tennessee is in no danger of an exotic animal incident on the scale of that seen near Zanesville, Ohio, this week, according to officials familiar with the keeping of large, non-domestic mammals.
Walter Cook, captive wildlife coordinator of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Law Enforcement Division, said state law does not allow individuals to keep exotic and potentially dangerous animals.
In theory, a citizen could illegally house, for example, a cougar or black bear.
“It happens but it’s not common,” Cook said. “The citizenry is good about letting us know.”
The incident in Ohio, in which Terry Thompson seemingly freed 51 lions, tigers and bears he kept on a preserve before allegedly committing suicide, has shed a spotlight on the challenges of private citizens housing large, exotic and potentially dangerous mammals.
Tennessee changed its law in 1991 to ban the private keeping of various mammals and reptiles. Since then, Cook said there have been a handful of cases involving illegally kept cougars and poisonous snakes.
Prior to the law changing, three private businesses in East Tennessee had permits to legally house exotic wildlife and are grandfathered in, Cook said. The trio keep Asiatic black bears, sloth bears and poisonous snakes and alligators, respectively.
All other facilities in the state housing large exotic animals are either zoos or sanctuaries, he said.
“They make up the bulk of our permits,” Cook said, adding that circuses with animals will have a USDA license when they enter the state.
Connie Philipp, director of animal collections with the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, said the Ohio wildlife preserve was not necessarily odd.
“There are some people who will keep [exotic animals],” she said. “This is usually seen in states where the laws are looser or do not exist.”
Philipp said citizens keep such animals for different reasons, including breeding income, ego and the sincere desire to help a species.
“Unless it’s a professionally managed facility, it’s usually not a good idea,” she said.
The Nashville Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Occasionally, Phillipp said the zoo will work with out-of-state private individuals who have permits to keep large, exotic animals.
“It’s a matter of making sure of who you are dealing with,” she said.