When bobcats go wild — umm, viral

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman
It seemed like an interesting but straightforward story for the Knight Center’s news service, Great Lakes Echo.
An Ohio appeals court ruled that a man could keep his pet bobcat without a state Department of Agriculture license and Agriculture Department permit.
Our readers love hearing about wildlife, we often report on environmental litigation in what we label “Green Gavel” stories, and we found the court decision during our weekly trolling through legal databases.
The legal issue was technical, not sexy: Does the Ohio law as written cover bobcats although they’re not specifically mentioned?
Sure, there were a couple of factual oddities to spice up the story. For example, the bobcat’s name is Thor. Its owner is a police detective in Columbus. Thor never goes outdoors. And the owner had no problem getting an annual license until the state legislature adopted a 2012 law to regulate private ownership of “dangerous wild animals.”

The impetus for the law was a notorious 2011 incident when Terry Thompson of Zanesville released 56 dangerous wild animals, including wolves, lions, tigers, bears and a baboon, before reportedly killing himself.
When we posted the story on Jan. 13, Facebook likes flowed in a torrent — more than 18,000 in less than a week. There were more than 32,000 page views during that time. And it drew more comments than most Great Lakes Echo stories generate.
In less than a week the bobcat story became the third most-visited story published by Echo. Ever. The top two have been on the site for more than five years.
Why so much attention to this story? Well, there was an eye-catching photo of a bobcat from the Ohio DNR. And a clever headline: “Ohio court says bobcat can be a housecat”
Well, maybe we also drew a few more eyeballs with a typo– quickly fixed, however — in our tweet: “Ohio court says bobcat can be a housecoat.” That led one alert reader to tweet back: “how many does it take to make a full housecoat?” Another responded that “both are bad ideas.”
For whatever reasons, the story not only resonated but drew heated comments lauding or excoriating the court’s decision, the state law or both. Here are a few of them:

  • “Bravo! Having grown up in Africa with big cats in the wild, I have always found it appalling that Ohio allowed exotic animals to be housed in tiny cages by disturbed and/ or incapable animal hoarders. It’s is arrogance to cage large wild animals. Thank God that will not be allowed now. I do however think existing owners should have been grandfathered in until their pets died of natural causes, if they were being well taken care of – I do understand that attachment, ( and worry that where they were transferred may not be much better).”
  • “I sense some people do not realize the potential hazards in allowing people to have wild and/or exotic animals as pets. The problem is much larger than this article entails. There have to be strict laws for several reasons.”
  1. Wild animals are meant to be wild, living in ecosystems, serving their purpose.
  2. Some people get tired of their wild exotic ” pets,” release them and then they multiply at an unexpected pace, invade the territory of our native species and harm environments for other organisms.
  3. Sometimes people get hurt by wild animals as the animal ages. Instincts take over and the tameness suddenly isn’t so tame.

Displacing an animal from its intended location for your selfishness, is wrong. [Ohio Gov. John]Kasich isn’t right about a lot of things, but this seems like common sense to me.

  • “Take that Gov Kasich and your ODA [Ohio Department of Agriculture]…Taking Constitutional rights to Life, Liberty and PROPERTY away from Ohio citizens is enough reason enough that you will NOT be the republican candidate for president. Next month the fight for Tiger Ridge will begin-I’m certain that too will be a loss and animals will be returned to their rightful longstanding, LEGAL owners will happen-This has already cost the TAXPAYERS plenty!”
  • “House Pets for morons.”
  • “NONE of the exotic owners chose to “voluntarily relinquish their animals to the state” in Ohio! Their animals, many of which were elderly, were seized by the insidious ODA, through its partnership with a radical Animal Rights Group, the “Humane” Society of the United States, which is opposed to ALL animal ownership and use by humans, and which operates or funds ZERO animal shelters itself. That said, this is one tiny victory for animal owners in the state of Ohio to be able to keep a tame bobcat, in a state which pretty much has outlawed most animals.”
  • “No mention of all the animals that have died because of the dangerous wild animal act. Perfectly tame, wonderfully kept animals that he had to go through things because of the law. The law sat on a desk backed by HSUS and PETA until the event happened with Terry [Thompson], a Zanesville man who released 56 dangerous wild animals in 2011 before reportedly killing himself]. He did not commit suicide. It was all a corrupt plan to kill him and let his animals go to push this law Thru. Governor Kasich was behind it all.”

If you missed “Ohio courts says bobcat can be a housecat,” click here to read it.
Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.