“I’m not going to get eaten, am I?” My friend Kelley pretends he’s joking, but he folds his arms tightly over his chest. We’re entering The Wild Animal Sanctuary (TWAS), a refuge for exotic animals in Keenesburg, Colorado, where we will tread along ramps above sharp-toothed, half-ton carnivores. In the parking lot, Kelley and I can already smell a funky, musky odor that can’t be attributed to mere manure.
We’ve brought enough gear—cameras, binoculars, water bottles, power bars, sunscreen, insect repellent—for a week-long safari. We’re used to spending our weekends prowling thrift shops and antique malls, not scouting tigers. But on this perfect Saturday morning in May we’re walking the plank.
Terry Thompson made me do it. Thompson is the man who, on October 18, 2011, released the 52 exotic animals he kept in caged in Zanesville, Ohio and then shot himself. His private zoo included 18 tigers, 17 lions, 8 bears, 3 cougars, and 2 wolves, all of which were killed by police within 24 hours. (An additional baboon and macaque were presumed eaten by other animals.)
I distinctly remember hearing of the event the way some people remember learning of the JFK assassination or 9/11. It was a Tuesday. I’d turned on the car radio and had just begun to back out. I stopped in the middle of the street at the news, my car still in reverse, to listen. The event hit me harder than the many mass school shootings that have occurred before and since. It felt oddly personal. Maybe that was simply because I share a last name with Terry Thompson, and could be distantly related. Also I grew up in Ohio and passed through Zanesville (ignorant, back then, of any backyard exotic animals). My connection to the story felt deeper, though. I tried talking to friends about the event at the time, but it barely made their radar. The victims were, after all, “only” animals. Talk radio chatter just condemned Thompson, or sometimes the police for shooting the animals. But I found myself with a dismaying amount of empathy. If I had lived in slightly different life circumstances, would I have become a Terry Thompson?
I had four dogs and one cat at the time (even though I’m allergic to cats). I could see myself getting more. If I wasn’t careful, I could become a hoarder. As a middle-aged woman living alone, I certainly fit the profile of a hoarder. My life-partner died a decade ago, leaving me alone and—as my friends with children would call my state—childless. Though I longed for another relationship, dating had only put me in a permanent limbo of serial breakups. Meanwhile, my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which might have better expressed themselves, like my friend Kelley’s, by amassing antiques and collectibles, instead chose my animals as their primary site. Rescuing dogs became my calling. Each dog I rescued was a little more of a challenge, a little closer to feral. I was moving into “unadoptable” territory. So I knew animal longing: the golden eyes, the matted fur wild to be brushed, the unclipped nails clacking in their concrete cages as they paced. The fear growls. The raised ears slowly softening. The ecstasy of connecting with an animal who couldn’t be reached.
But dogs, domesticated animals, only hint at wildness. I wondered what it was like to keep a truly wild and untamable animal. While exotic animal hoarders are more typically male, their profile overlaps with that of women hoarding housecats and dogs. In addition to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies and our sense of an absence in our lives needing to be filled, we share an abiding longing to connect across species. I don’t believe we’re simply substituting animals for the human relationships we’re supposed to prefer. That’s too simple. In my case, I started amassing animals when my husband was still alive, back when I was well-loved. No, we also crave the animality of animals, its twin familiarity and alienness, its uncanny portals into other worlds of knowing, other ways of experiencing the world. We find the otherness of animals infinitely fascinating, even sacred. We may be so overwhelmed with our love for our animals, and our belief that only we can care for them properly, that we can’t see how we’re harming them.
We are the people who find the death of a tiger at least as tragic as that of a human. Maybe more. Valuing other species over our own, we may be evolutionary errata, if not outright pathological. Stronger than our longing for survival and self-preservation is our longing to love something wild, to connect with a consciousness unfathomable to us.
And so I’m at The Wild Animal Sanctuary, plumbing my pathology.
Kelley and I enter through the gift shop and are told that we need to wait for a tour guide’s preview before we can roam. Families of kids gather around us. Kelley and I are the only childless adults.
The guide arrives, blond and twenty-something and pretty. “Most of the animals are carnivores,” she says. “Here’s a question especially for the kiddos. Do you know what a carnivore is?”
One seven-ish little boy nods shyly.
“What is a carnivore?”
“It means they eat meat?”
We all ooh-ah at the smart kid.
“Bears eat meat too,” the guide says, “but also fruits and vegetables. Do you know what they’re called?”
The little boy doesn’t know this.
“They’re omnivores,” the guide informs. “They eat everything!”
A little girl screams.
“Okay, so I’m gonna have to ask you kiddos not to scream. Can you do that for me? And can you make sure your parents don’t scream?”
I look at Kelley and put my finger to my lips. He giggles, squaring his arms over his belly.
I’m thinking that if an animal gets loose, it will probably pick off one of the kids before going after the adults.
TWAS, we learn, features a “Mile Into the Wild” walkway, a ramp raised 18 to 42 feet in height, which stretches across 4800 feet of the 720-acre sanctuary housing over 290 large carnivores. The guide tells us not to run or make loud noises. The animals have no natural predators who attack them from above, but they can still get threatened by overhead rumblings.
Then she gets to “the most important part.” All of these animals were “born in captivity” and wouldn’t survive in the wild, so taking refuge at the sanctuary was their best option. “We do NOT advocate keeping these animals as pets.” She explains the history of some of these animals. People tried to raise them in garages or basements. “What do you think,” she asks the smart boy. “Do tigers make good pets?”
“No,” he answers confidently.
“That’s right. They do not.”
Most of the lions, tigers, bears, wolves, and other exotic animals ahead were rescued from horrendous living conditions. Often, they were kept as pets in cages; sometimes they were raised for the underground pelt trade. They arrived at the sanctuary malnourished, sometimes declawed or even defanged, unsocialized, and miserable.
“How could anyone do that to an animal?” Kelley whispers to me. Around us other visitors shake their heads in disgust and disbelief,
These animals, the guide explains, could never be returned to the wild. They wouldn’t survive. Even if they weren’t defanged and declawed, they’d never developed the proper hunting and social skills. So these animals, all neutered on arrival except for the male lions (who need their testosterone to maintain their glorious manes), would live out the rest of their lives in this sanctuary, where they could at least run around and mix with other members of their species. Bottom line, loud and clear: wild animals should never be kept as pets.
Then the guide sets us loose.
Just past the preview gathering we hit a sign announcing Servals.
“What’s a serval?” Kelley asks.
“It’s a kind of wild cat, isn’t it?” I guess.
Kelley whips out his iPhone and googles. Servals come from Africa, where their 25-40 pound bodies hunt the savannas for rodents. They’re aided by hypersensitive ears, so large in relation to their faces that they look like permanent kittens. The backs of their ears display little ocelli, or mock eyes, to fake out predators behind them. We train our binoculars on these sleeping, nocturnal creatures. Slowly we make out a cat, then two, then three. They look like large, leggy housecats, or mini-leopards.
“They look like they could do some damage,” Kelley says.
The servals had been kept as “pets,” we read from the placard. One, kept in a New York apartment, grew unruly, so the owner filed down her teeth and de-clawed her. When the cat still proved unmanageable, the owner surrendered her. The other cats had similar stories, but without the medieval torture techniques. That’s horrible, we concur. These animals clearly need space to run and hunt. Again, the take-away was clear: servals should not, and cannot, be made into pets.
We walk about fifty yards and Holy Shit, there’s a tiger right below us. Huge! I knew from my reading that they were huge, but there’s nothing like standing up close to them. Their paws flex big as dinner plates, and their bellies slosh from side to side.
“Oh!” Kelley squeaks.
“Magnificent,” I whisper.
The impulse to own wild animals is not new or unique to contemporary America. As I researched Terry Thompson and animal hoarding, I found references to the captivation of animals stretching back through history: the lion’s den that Daniel braved; Nero and his tiger Phoebe; the many menageries over the centuries, perhaps culminating in the bizarre Victorian menageries, and leading to modern zoos. Some historians postulate a link between imperialist ambitions and wild animal confinement. The U.S. military’s discovery of Uday Hussein’s abandoned personal zoo in Baghdad, where lions, tigers, and other animals lay starving, only bolsters that link.
I read about exotics ownership in the U.S., too, which is far more common than you might think. There are more tigers in captivity in just the U.S. today than exist in the wild world-wide. Across this country, backyards and garages and basements hold exotics of all kinds: lions and tigers and bears, of course, but also giraffes, zebras, chimpanzees, even hyenas. Exotics breeding and trade 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. Their stories, which I fixated on, are horrifying and heartbreaking. So when, in the course of my reading about Terry Thompson and animal hoarders, I learned about The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado (barely 45 minutes from my home in Fort Collins), I corralled Kelley to take this Saturday off from antiquing and accompany me. I needed to see a “happy” ending to some of these stories. Or so I told myself.
But something else was going on too. The more I read about tigers, the more I wanted to get up close to them.
We’re the tiger’s first visitors of the day. I can tell they’re huge, even at this distant height above them. When they’re not pacing, they can stand still as statues, which makes them all the more threatening. Several tigers stand, not facing us, but at maybe a 45 degree angle, pulling their lips back so far from their teeth they show gums.
“They’re smelling you,” says a guide. “They smell through their mouths.”
The tigers look disgusted at what they’ve detected, their noses crinkling.
What I smell crinkles my nose too: competing with Kelley’s coconut-scented sunscreen is a mixture of compost bin and semen and manure—not the toxic kind like you can smell in Greeley feedlots, but an almost sweet, ripe, meaty manure. My dogs would go nuts, their nostrils dilating. Flocks of white seagulls dab at the refuse.
We’ve arrived just at feeding time. Down below, at animal level, volunteers drive up in jeeps ad toss what looks like roaster chickens over the fences into the tiger cages. Kelley and I watch the tigers lick chicken juice off the skin. They’re dainty at first, and then they crunch the entire carcass on the side of their jaws. They remind me of my husky mix, coincidentally named Tiger, but the real tigers’ jaws are so much more casually powerful. Then we realize that the chicken is just the distraction—the appetizer—to the big hunks of meat coming in. I’m a fairly small woman, so these huge slabs of meat are almost as big as me. The tigers hold them in an embrace as they devour them with ease. I could be eaten just as casually.
According to the tour guide, these tigers, all captive-born and –raised, come from abusive conditions. Ricky and Savannah, for example, lived in a horse trailer in Kansas for five years. Meeka and her mother Tajah were kept chained by the neck in a backyard in Minnesota. Many of the Bengal and Siberian tigers were purchased as cute, tiny cubs, but then surrendered when their owners found they could no longer feed and shelter their 500-850-pound beasts. Most had been kept in small concrete-and-steel cages, causing joint troubles, and were malnourished if not starving. Some of the tigers were not surrendered but confiscated. Owners who clearly could not handle their animal burden nevertheless moved from state to state to dodge laws put up to block them. These owners couldn’t bear to live without the animals they so loved and abused. Many of these owners, it seems, thought they were running sanctuaries, and would do nearly anything to “save” their animals from confiscation. I’m beginning to suspect that the impulse to hoard and the impulse to rescue may not be as distinct as depicted in the TWAS literature.
Now I can feel the bridge shaking under me. It could break, and I could fall into the animal dens. If it happens, I’m thinking, it’s probably best to get attacked by a tiger. That would be quick. I’ve seen videos of lions where they start eating a cow while it’s still alive and lowing. On the other hand, the tigers were freshly fed, so they might toy with me cat-and-mouse style.
Ahead, the wolves are still sleeping, packed in their dens, as we pass. Most huddle underground, barely a swath of fur showing. Kelley and I move on to the bears, beginning their morning perambulations. They lumber, Grendel-like, both goofy and monstrously gigantic. We raise our binoculars. One bear climbs into a tub and props his back feet along the rim. Another sits with his back leg stretched out under him. They were rescued, we read, from amusement parks, roadside zoos, and Ohio hoarders (the laws regarding exotics ownership having been more lax in Ohio prior to the Terry Thompson catastrophe). When volunteers roll in and throw apples at the bears, they forage. I realize that, from this height, not only are we looking down on the bears, but it’s hard to get a sense of scale. Even with binoculars, it’s like looking at cars from an airplane as we go in for landing. We get an inflated sense of our stature in relation to the non-humans. These grizzlies look teddy bear-sized in relation to us. Or they look like puppies. From this height, they seem almost huggable. “They’re cute,” one spectator says.
“I like his ears. He’s adorable,” adds another.
“Mommy, I want a bear,” a little girl squeals. With her crooked bangs and plastic barrettes, she looks uncannily like me at that age.
Kelley and I move on to the Bolivian lion house, whose concrete floor feels more solid under our feet, and anyway my fear response is waning. The lions’ indoor habitats smell like a giant hamster cage, with wood chips and straw bales. It smells like my childhood. From this distance, the cats still look bigger than hamsters, bigger even than my domestic shorthairs, but still vulnerable, in need of protection. They were confiscated, I read, from a circus in Bolivia that used these animals in performance. I note the black fuzz at tips of their tails, which twitch in their sleep, along with their ears and legs, so like my housecat. They’re not as large or bright as the tigers, and some are underdeveloped from years of nutritional neglect, but they have the same stillness, the stare that sees you and doesn’t see you. You want their wary, golden eyes to look at you, to see you, to recognize you.
“Look at that one,” a woman says, laughing and pointing to a stunted male with abnormally short, Basset-hound-like legs. “It looks like a Chow Chow.”
I glare at her. I’m already feeling defensive of these beautiful, wounded creatures—and perhaps a touch possessive, too.
Farther down the walkway, a roving volunteer, another bubbly twenty-something woman, asks a little boy if he has any questions. “Do you have cheetahs?” the boy asks.
The guide says no.
“Is that because they’re too quick to capture?”
The father steps in. “Where would someone get one of these animals? Like where are these people getting these animals?”
The guide laughs nervously. “Different places.”
The father persists. “But, like, where would I go to get, say, a pet cheetah?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.” The guide is on alert.
“No, no, no. Of course not,” the father reassures her.
“Oh, okay,” says the guide. “You sounded a little too interested for a minute there.”
“No, I’m just wondering. Just say I were going to get a cheetah? Where would I go?”
The guide clamps down her jaw. “Black market,” she says through her teeth.
Back outside, I hear another father say to his son, “Look, that wolf looks like he’s waking up.” When the son asks his dad why, the dad replies, “Because he wants to eat you.”
The wolves begin to rouse and move. They look arthritic as they walk with a deliberate placing of legs—until they run, and then they’re all grace. I feel like I do when I visit the dog pound; I’m falling in love with all of them, so huge and dignified, even in their agitated scratching of fur shedding in clumps. I may become one of those people who hangs glossy photos of wolves all around their house. In fact, I already know I’ll be buying one of those howling wolf posters at the gift shop on my way out. These Arctic wolves, timberwolves, and wolf hybrids move like my husky mix and stare like my border collie, but more grandly and with more maturity. My own dogs now seem so juvenile and disappointing. At the same time I feel a twinge of guilt for keeping my dogs confined in my house and yard. Why is keeping dogs as pets okay when keeping wolf hybrids as pets is abuse? Am I already an animal abuser, enslaving my dogs, who, incidentally, are spending the day in doggie day camp so that I can prowl TWAS?
I overhear a little girl say, “Mommy, I want a pet wolf.” She’s the girl who wanted a bear earlier.
The mother replies, “Wolves aren’t meant to be pets.”
Her older brother adds, “You can get a dog that looks just life a wolf, it’s called an Alaskan Malamute. Or also Husky.”
“No,” the girl insists. “I want a wolf.”
I understand. I, too, want.
We return to the tigers. It’s the tigers who most awe me with their total otherness, their monstrosity. And yet, there’s something so familiar at its core, something that grabs hold of you. I begin to feel something like sympathy, even kinship. I watch one tigress, like a housecat, lick her paws with eyes closed, then rub them over ears. For a few seconds the ear folds dog-ear-style before flapping back into its upright position. I imagine Terry Thompson felt closest to his tigers, with their expressionless faces and hieroglyphic bodies.
According to the TWAS literature, some of these tigers came from Terry Thompson’s zoo in Zanesville, though I’d read elsewhere that all 18 of his tigers were shot, along with all 17 of his lions. Thompson must have known his animals would be killed if he set them free. So why did he do it? Some people have said he wanted revenge on the community hounding him to curtail his menagerie. Others have said the government was closing in on him for his illegal gun collection. Some say he was simply insane (as if insanity is ever simple). Others call him evil. Many believe he hated his animals, and his releasing them to their certain deaths was the ultimate act of hatred. But I can’t agree with this charge. Seeing these tigers now makes me even more convinced. I believe he loved them in the most tragically, pathologically dysfunctional of ways, with the ultimate impossible love, unrequited and unrequitable. When I imagine him on his last day, he’s filled with longing and sorrow for his creatures. He may have hated humans at that point, but not his beloved animals. Maybe, feeling caged himself, he overidentified with them, and wanted to give them the taste of wild freedom, at least for one brief moment, that he could never have. Because nothing will cage you more absolutely than keeping exotic animals. When Thompson’s body was discovered, one of his tigers was ravaging his remains. The possessive desire for wildness can eat you alive.
One image in particular has haunted me since that October day in 2011. It’s the image I’ve been seeking to displace, but even now it overpowers the sight of these healthy tigers before me. It’s the famous photograph that slipped from Zanesville to the world, in which rows of massive tiger and lion carcasses cover the killing fields. It’s as hard for me to look at as the piles of human corpses in a concentration camp photo. So while I’d like to believe that some of these animals are Zanesville survivors, giving me that sliver of a positive ending to the Thompson story, I know there can be no genuinely happy ending to keeping exotics captive.
Still, these tigers can hold a mysterious spell over a person. They don’t see or acknowledge the humans, don’t care about us. It makes you want to woo them, to try to win them over, to put your hands on them and absorb some of their power. You want to know them and, in spite of everything, to love them.
Kelley and I stop again at the serval enclosure on the way out. Now that we’ve seen 350-pound lions and 800-pound tigers, these 35-pound servals look tiny, almost indistinguishable from housecats. A human could easily hold this feline in her arms and nuzzle its head under her chin.
The guides should give us an exit lecture even more stinging than the one on entry in its excoriation of the evils of exotics ownership. It doesn’t take long—no more than a two-hour walk over a bridge—to go from complete ignorance to a captivating desire.
“Look at them, so cute,” Kelley squeals again, and then adds, more reverently, with the acquisitive longing he usually only reserves for Stickley furniture or van Briggle pottery, “I want one!”
I put my finger to my lips. I recognize the tone in his voice, and the need it attempts to restrain, but I know better than to express such desires. It must be what Terry Thompson felt, way back when he encountered his first lion and dreamed of connection. Your longing grows fierce as hunger. The serval paces and paces. This is how it begins.