By Deborah Thompson
I remember stopping in my driveway when the car radio reported the shootings—the bears, the wolves, the lions. It was the tigers that got to me most. On October 18 2011, a man in Zanesville, Ohio named Terry Thompson, who had a personal zoo of fifty-two exotic animals, unbolted or cut open all of their cages and then shot himself. Unable to rescue the animals before dusk, police began shooting them. As I sat horrified in my driveway, my dogs watching me from the living room window, tallies rolled in: eighteen tigers killed, seventeen lions, six black bears, two grizzlies, two wolves…
By the next morning, nearly all of Thompson’s animals were dead, at least forty-eight of them shot by police in what some animal rights advocates condemned as an “urban safari.” Others, defending the police, said that once the animals were released the humans had little choice, and that Thompson must have known he was dooming to death the animals he claimed to love. I remember seeing police officers talking on television; even the ones certain they did the right thing shielded horror behind their eyes. And I remember the images of the animals. One photo in particular, which soon flew around the world, showed lion and tiger corpses lined up like war dead.
Although I grew up in Ohio and shared a last name with him, Terry Thompson was no relation of mine, as far as I knew. Still, the event grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Despite my being a teacher, the animal massacre hit me harder than the many mass school shootings that have occurred before and since. I immersed myself in news of the incident, snapping up every item I could find. When I tried to talk to friends about it, though, few felt connected to or even knew of the event. It was sad, they’d say, but at least no humans died (not counting Thompson). Why wasn’t I more personally upset by the massacre of humans in the Congo or our bombing of human civilians in Afghanistan? Why didn’t I care more about my own species?
Over the days and weeks following the Zanesville catastrophe, people began to characterize Thompson as evil. One radio talk show host labeled Thompson “asshole of the year.” Callers said he must have hated his animals, first to keep them in cages, and then to free them to certain death. I shared their outrage. But I was feeling something else. Thompson’s condition felt too familiar for comfort.
My sympathy for the other players in the event had come easily. I found myself thinking about the 911 call-taker’s mounting realization as she answered call after call reporting lion and tiger sightings, and the horrified cops, forced to shoot those massive, majestic animals. I felt a connection with animal celebrity Jack Hanna and tried to imagine the burden he must have felt as he advised the police authorities. But I could also feel for Thompson, this man to whom I felt uncannily related.
I didn’t want to imagine Terry Thompson, certainly not to sympathize with him. I wanted the purity of outrage. So I did what any recovering academic does to displace anxiety and keep identification at bay: I researched and I read.
Exotic animal ownership turns out to be way more common then I could previously have imagined. Even now, I have a hard time believing what I know to be true: that more tigers exist in captivity just in the U.S. than in the wild worldwide. Across this country, backyards and garages and basements hold exotics of all kinds: lions and tigers, of course, but also zebras, hyenas, gazelles, lynx, kangaroos, and a surprising number of orangutans, lemurs, alligators, cobras, pythons, pangolins, and Komodo dragons. Just for starters. The breeding and trade of exotics is big business, and while it’s largely gone underground now due to increasing regulations, it’s still thriving.
The animals, of course, rarely thrive.
Nor is the impulse to own wildness peculiar to contemporary Americans; references to the captivation of animals stretch back through history. Exotic animal hoarding had long been understood as a sign of evil or, relatedly, a display of power: consider the fabled pet lion accompanying Ramses II into battle; or the biblical lions of Darius’s “den,” gazing at Daniel; or Nero’s beloved tigress Phoebe, his alter-id, said to feed on his human enemies; or the rhinoceroses, elephants, lions, and bears roaming the Coliseum in the Roman Empire’s staged hunts (which we would now call “trophy hunting”). Contemporary cases also abound. In Lawrence Anthony’s Baghdad’s Ark I read about the rescue of Uday Hussein’s private zoo of exotic carnivores, rumored to have fed on the human flesh of his enemies but left to starve when he evacuated Bagdad. Most recently, drug dealers are reputed to have moved beyond pit bull terriers as status symbols to lions, tigers, and panthers. (There was even a Law and Order episode featuring this scenario.)
In fact, there seems to be an uncanny overlap between exotic animal collecting and imperialism, cultural critics have noted. Colonizers regularly brought back live trophies (humans as well as non-human animals) from the lands they dominated, in part as proof of mastery, but also as objects of curiosity. It’s no mere coincidence, some scholars argue, that the era of global imperialism overlaps with the heyday of empiricism, with its appetite for knowing the unknown. Both share a limitless acquisitiveness. The notoriously bizarre Victorian menageries, containing such “curiosities” as big cats, baboons, orangutans, peacocks, even anteaters, serve as mascots for decades of European consumption of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Critics of modern zoos and circuses, similarly, see these places as embodiments of humans’ will to power and knowledge. We’ve told ourselves our desire to understand other species is worth the cost to animals forced to live in captivity. Our contemporary culture translates desire into consumerism, telling us that if we love something, we should own it. We express our desire for the wild by consuming it.
Still, I sense something else, too, lying beyond this well-criticized acquisitiveness, cruelty, and the will to power/knowledge commonly understood as key motivations. Something even more destructive but more difficult simply to condemn.
The stereotype of the exotic animal owner today is the sadistic drug lord with the chained tiger or the greedy circus owner who abuses his animals purely for money and then abandons them when they’re no longer profitable. These cases certainly exist, but they’re not, research suggests, the most common. At least as numerous are the hoarders, who believe themselves to be animal lovers and rescuers. It seems that the young Terry Thompson may have been one of these.
Now increasingly understood as a mental illness, exotic animal hoarding has been linked with other forms of hoarding. Hoarding Disorder (HD) is now an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. Although animal hoarding is not listed as a subtype, many mental health researchers find most cases of animal hoarding to fit well within this diagnostic classification, which also links it with OCD. It’s not the number of animals kept that defines animal hoarding but their condition. Multiple animal ownership becomes hoarding when a person can no longer provide proper nutrition or sanitation. Usually, the hoarder fails to see the abuse caused by such conditions, even when animals are starving, disease-ridden, or even living among dead animals whose carcasses have not been removed. Many of them think they’re actually running sanctuaries, and will do nearly anything to “save” their animals from confiscation. They can’t bear to live without the animals they so love and unwittingly abuse.
Statistically, hoarders of exotic animals are more likely to be male. They’re closely related, though, to the statistically female hoarders of domestic animals, most commonly dogs and cats. I get that chill of strange familiarity, similar to the one over the Zanesville incident, when I hear of the old widow found with dozens of malnourished cats in her house, the sting of ammonia in the air so pungent that Animal Control rescuers require gas masks. Or the woman whose private rescue shelter got out of hand and she could no longer keep up with the care and feeding of her 15 dogs, but couldn’t bear to give any up, and had to be restrained while they were forcibly taken. Such hoarders love their animals beyond measure, beyond reason. Wrong as they are, they truly believe they are rescuers. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that the impulse to hoard and the impulse to rescue may not always be so distinct.
I get hints of how they feel when, from time to time, I scan the websites of animal shelters to see what new dogs are up for adoption. Just to look. There are always more dogs than “forever homes,” and I understand the urge, deeper than hunger, to save them all.
By the time of my Terry Thompson obsession I was down to three dogs, one dying of congestive heart failure, but at my most expansive I had four dogs and two cats. If I hadn’t poured a good chunk of my income into their upkeep and veterinary care, I’d already have been in hoarding territory. As a middle-aged widow living alone, I fit the typical profile of domestics hoarder too perfectly. My life-partner died a decade earlier, leaving me—as my friends with children would call my state—“childless.” My obsessive-compulsive tendencies (self-diagnosed) then fixed on dogs. I’d already had three spaniel mixes. Each new dog I rescued was a little more of a challenge, a little closer to feral. Rescuing now became my calling. I was moving into “unadoptable” territory.
I’d adopted Olive, dog number four, after a trip to the Humane Society to donate the toys my three geriatric canines no longer chased. I briefly considered adopting the dingo who was literally climbing the walls, but when a border collie hexed me with her stare, I took her home. She’d come from a hoarder with eight dogs, who was forced to surrender four of them. I now had four dogs myself (not to mention the cats).
Olive’s history of being tied to a tree all day long soon manifested itself in extreme territorialism and “resource protectiveness,” requiring hundreds of dollars in training to counteract. That’s when I learned I had to understand the dog’s point of view, her sense of space, of boundaries, of scent, of movement, of threatening and submissive behaviors, which opened up whole new realms of perception to me. As I entered this mysterious world of signs and territories, though, Olive even more quickly learned to function in the human-headed society of my household. Though she never lost her resource protectiveness around strange dogs—that sudden lunge, that eye—the worst of her anxieties were tamed.
After two of my geriatric dogs died I scanned dog rescue websites (“just to look”), and found a wolfy-looking beast named Tiger, an unsocialized stray found roaming a six-lane highway in Texas. He turned out to be wild in a different way from Olive. The first three times I took him to the dog park he jumped the fence and ran into the woods. When he did stay inside the fence he grabbed the scruffs of other dogs’ necks and pulled, swinging his powerful neck to and fro, a move wolves use to break the spines of prey. He jumped up on dining tables and countertops, knowing no bounds. He especially liked to gnaw on human arms like a puppy does, but with two-year-old teeth. I slathered Neosporin over my arms and began clicker training. Within a few months, Tiger settled into a “good dog,” obeying all my commands and walking solicitously at my side, with only an occasional lunge at an unneutered male or an extended howl at the living room window. By then I missed his wildness. I even tried to train some of it back into him, but, Jack London’s Buck notwithstanding, there’s no going back.
On bad days I scanned animal shelter websites like an addict, looking for new, more desperate rescues. For a time, I was tempted to try a wolf hybrid, even though the ones I’ve seen in the dog park have been so gentle, so reserved. They don’t want to be touched, and disappear from under you when you go to pet them. They have no dog body language whatsoever—no relaxed-jaw dog-smile, not even a play bow past early puppyhood—and don’t heed invitations of the frolicking dogs around them. These are canines whose eyes can never be met. If you look directly at them, either they turn away, submissive, or they accept your challenge. I’ve only seen the latter happen once, and fortunately the owner grabbed the leash and pulled hard before his canine launched.
Once, though, a muscle-bound man brought his hybrid puppy. “Seventy-five percent wolf,” he said proudly. He also brought his adult wolf mix, but never let that canine off the leash despite its determined straining. The six-month-old pup, already more self-sufficient than the adult versions of his paedomorphic dog counterparts, tore through the park without sound, reached the gate, and rammed his way under it, digging as he ran, still soundless. People in the dog park shook their heads as the man charged into the woods to retrieve him. “Never keep wolves as pets,” they agreed, and I joined them. Part of me, though, admired the seventy-five percent wolf pup. There’s the real deal, I thought. He makes my tough border collie and husky look like toy poodles or shivering Chihuahuas. Of course it’s wrong to keep wolves and wolf hybrids as pets, and this owner was in over his head, but if I were to do it, I’d be a whole different kind of owner. I’d be so much better…
…and over time I could become another Thompson.
Of course, hoarding dogs, or even dog-wolf hybrids, is not the same as hoarding lions and tigers. Dogs have at least ten thousand years of domestication taming their genes. Still, I was on the same spectrum as Terry Thompson.
Down to two dogs now, I only left the hoarding spectrum danger zone due to sheer exhaustion and physical limitation. I simply couldn’t keep up with my high-energy dogs when I was healthy, even before my hip joints gave out. After bilateral hip replacement surgery, I risk falling and breaking my hips as they pull at their leashes. Some days, as I force myself to push through my pain and imbalance to walk them to the dog park, I imagine myself being found keeled over. They say that dogs, unlike cats (or wolves, I would guess), wait twenty-four hours before eating their human companion’s corpse. Sometimes, though, it feels like my dogs have started taking bits of life out of me long before death. And dogs aren’t even wild.
I’ve banned myself from prowling the dog rescue websites. But is that enough? How do you know when you’ve crossed the line and become captive to your desire? Would I know if it were happening to me? Would I recognize it before it ate me alive?
In the end, this is how I understand Terry Thompson: driven not (or not only) by a will to power but (also) by fascination, by a perverted reverence—a longing to cross species and become part of a non-human family, to be raised by other animals, to submit to their animality, in all its alienness as well as its startling familiarity. More mind-altering than hallucinogens, this animality opens onto other worlds of knowing, other ways of sensing and experiencing. What does it mean to think through smell, as my dogs do, or to hear ultrasonic stirrings, or to sense the earth’s magnetic pull? People driven by this curiosity, this hunger, find the otherness of animals not just fascinating but sacred. What, after all, is a religious experience, if not a radical humbling before a force much greater than ourselves and ultimately unknowable?
In Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, who spent over a decade of summers living among Alaskan bears, says several times into the camera, “I will die for these animals,” and explains that if they attack, “I will be one of them.” In manic ecstasy he touches a bear’s fresh excrement and exclaims, as if identifying with the feces, “I was inside her!” (Holy shit, indeed.) At points he even wants to become more bear than human: “I have to mutually mutate into a wild animal.”
To experience, as a human, what it’s like to be nonhuman: that may be the ultimate metaphysical paradox. I wonder if that’s why so many religions solve this paradox through mythological creatures, impossibly part-human and part-animal: sphinxes, fauns, satyrs, centaurs, mermaids, elephant gods, and fallen angels incarnated as serpents. Or sometimes as creatures that metamorphose from human to animal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Actaeon, hunter of deer, himself turns into an ungulate, horns sprouting from his head as he hears his baying dogs approach. It’s what many hunters say hunting gives them: the necessity to think like both predator and prey. They experience the wildness and animal exigencies of these nonhuman species.
Contemporary American pop culture offers its own pantheon of human-animal hybrids: Spiderman, Batman, Catwoman, and an infestation of werewolves and blood-sucking vampires. These freakish monsters demonstrate, at least to me, something of the desire for “becoming-animal” (to borrow French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s term). The word “demonstrate” derives from the same root as “monster,” and monsters can show us our subterranean selves. But they also show us something not-self. These monsters may demonstrate our impossible desire to know the world as only a non-human animal can know it.
In real life, such hybridity is impossible; the human dies in its transformation to animal. Actaeon, turning into a stag, is in the same instant attacked by his own hunting dogs and mauled out of existence. Timothy Treadwell only became bear in death; at the end of his thirteenth summer of peaceful coexistence with bears, one of them attacked Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Their remains were later found in the digestive tract of the suspected grizzly, killed as part of the investigation. Treadwell’s fantasy of being inside a bear, or of metamorphosing into one, was eerily realized. However, his love of bears killed not only two human beings but at least one ursine being as well. That’s what happens to someone who tries to “become animal.”
Ultimately, animal wildness is always beyond reach. The desire to connect with something wild is a doomed and dooming desire; the very act of connection contaminates the otherness and the wildness, and often the animal itself. It’s an unstable, untenable contradiction, this tragic, dysfunctional love, unrequited and unrequitable.
In the end Thompson, like Treadwell, was perversely metamorphosed into his animals at death, becoming one with them. Apparently he spread the remains of a dead chicken on himself to attract his animals to his body, which may be why police discovered the remains of Thompson’s corpse as they were being devoured by a tiger. Maybe this is what he wanted, this literal incorporation. It may be the only way a person can truly become animal.
Deborah Thompson is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop the master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction. She has published creative essays in venues such as Briar Cliff, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, and Upstreet, and was awarded a Pushcart Prize for her piece “Mishti Kukur.” She is currently working on a book about human-dog relationships.