Both Esquire and GQ came out with big stories this week on the horrible Zanesville zoo incident four months ago. Exotic animal hoarder Terry Thompson killed himself just after unleashing about 50 large predators on exurban Ohio on October 18, 2011. To Esquire, it’s a gory action-adventure movie (they even released a movie trailer). GQ’s Chris Heath actually bothers to try to figure out how it happened, which makes his story a lot more interesting.
The Observer chronicled how both reporters stayed at the same hotel and the magazines jockeyed to make a splash. The most incredible part of the dueling stories is that it’s a silly but standard practice for monthly magazines to kill a feature if they know a rival is covering the same topic. Editors don’t want the public (or, more importantly, their peers) to think they are using ideas from each other (not possible, given the lead time) or just doing the obvious.
I’m glad GQ still went ahead because their piece is so much more nuanced and haunting.
Not that I wasn’t gripped by Esquire’s story, which treats the incident like a rollicking horror film. Lots of gore and men pissing, swearing and doing what they had no choice to do. You learn minute by minute how the cops shot the tigers, lions and bears, but get no sense of how the animals or their suicidal owner got to this point. Writer Chris Jones employs the dopey animal rights strawman to provide the only conflict. At one point the cops see “several” lions in open cages and bravely risk attack to lock the cages so they don’t have to shoot them. But then one cat slips out a hole and the suddenly realize all the cages have holes. Since no lion survived, it’s clear the cops shot the other (mostly) caged animals, but the details are skipped. That’s the conversation I want to hear.
Chris Heath not only covered the minutia of the animal slaughter, but also at least tried to figure out why it happened. Heath looked at the absurd lack of laws about owning dangerous predators, the economics of exotic ownership (cubs can be purchased for a few hundred bucks, but nobody wants to buy an adult, which are dangerous and expensive to keep). And he goes a lot further into figuring out Thompson, whom friends say changed after fighting in Vietnam and had received an anonymous letter the day before saying his wife had been cheating on him. Even thought it’s a whopper of a story, I could have read more from Heath, like how did Thompson and his wife get the money to buy and feed all these animals in the first place. (His wife claimed she spent $30,000 on the macaques and Heath calculates the animals would have needed 600 pounds of meat a day).
Heath also explores one of the odder mysteries of the case: how and why did Thompson cut open all the cages and not get attacked till after he shot himself. The exotic animal owners point to conspiracies involving animal rights activists. But, it may raise doubts about whether the quick carnage was totally necessary. Were the cats, which Health discovered were declawed, going to rush out to eat people? These animals could never have been released to the wild precisely because they wouldn’t have known how to hunt.
Jones lets the cops describe the typical animal lover’s critique as everybody just thinks they were a bunch of rednecks. I’m an animal person and I don’t think so. They did what they thought was right when they were faced with a group of unpredictable animals that should never have been in suburban Ohio. The cops made decisions under extreme pressure and you can always look back and wonder if something could have been done better. Since the incident, has anybody come up with a plan for the next exotic animal collection gone wild? Could they lure the hungry predators to a pile of drugged meat? The assumption is that this will never happen again. Yet we’ve got a country full of backyard exotic predators, owned by people who feel embattled and under financial stress. We didn’t think Columbine was going to keep happening, but it does. The scariest part of the story is that it could happen again.
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