Nearly 4 years after dozens of wild, dangerous animals were let loose in Zanesville, and nearly 3 years after a new state law promised to register owners and provide better protections, Ohio continues to be home to lions, tigers and bears–caged by owners who have failed to meet the new guidelines.
“Emotionally Attached” to Tigers
In the middle of the cornfields near the sleepy town of Waldo, there are grumbles and roars from a shed owned by Mike Stapleton.
“I’m emotionally attached to all of them,” Stapleton says of his 5 tigers, as his eyes gaze at Kendra, a 700-pound hybrid tiger behind the cage.
Stapleton, who was a pig farmer in Marion County, says he fell in love with tigers more than a decade ago and began what he calls his mission to save them from bad conditions across the country.
He started a rescue group called Paws and Claws, a group that has now lost its non-profit status.
“I love them,” he says.
That may be, but even Stapleton admits he would never go inside that cage.
“They are a wild animal, but they are captive born and captive bred–but they still have that instinct.” Stapleton says, admitting that if any one of his tigers turned on him, he would be killed.
These predators are contained in cages in a shed, with wire fencing Stapleton says is strong enough to prevent them from escaping. Yet, when we visited, a reinforcing bar in the center of the fence was not connected.
“There’s supposed to be a connector,” Stapleton admits. “But it’s not something that’s required.”
Waldo Weighs In
Down the road, in the center of Waldo, people gather at the liveliest place in town–The G&R Tavern, where the sign proudly proclaims, “Home of the Famous Bologna Sandwich.”
Inside, most of those who are from and near Waldo say they are not afraid of Stapleton and his tigers. Among those who defend Stapleton is Abby Fryman, Stapleton’s niece who works as a waitress here.
“He knows what he’s doing.” Fryman says. “He’s not going to let animals get out.”
David, a customer sipping on coffee at the counter, concurs. When asked if he’s concerned, David simply shakes his head and says, “Nope.”
But even in this café, stacked with Stapleton supporters, Matt Dettra, a young bartende, expressed anxiety and worry about Stapleton and his tigers.
“Tigers, you know, you don’t want those to get out!” Dettra exclaimed, adding he’s very concerned about the threat posed by those cats that live down that road. Some neighbors, who didn’t want to be identified, expressed the same concern.
That anxiety is rooted in reality. On October 13, 2011, Terry Thompson released his lions, tigers and bears on Zanesville, then, according to authorities, Thompson killed himself.
The pandemonium unleashed, turned in to near tragedy as predators were unleashed, then gunned down and killed by officers and deputies. When the smoke cleared, 48 regal animals, including 18 tigers and 6 bears, were dead.
New Law of the Land
Within a year of the mayhem, Ohio passed one of the most progressive laws overseeing private owners of wild, dangerous animals, forcing them to register, provide better conditions and better protections for the public. But two and a half years later, those protections, like that fence at Stapleton’s pen, have gaps.
While Ohio’s Department of Agriculture did issue permits for 56 private owners, 30 others have failed to register, including Stapleton.
Records reveal Stapleton has applied with the state, but never completed the required sections to bring him in compliance with the new law, including placing the tigers behind a taller, stronger fence that he’s been building for a couple of years, but has not yet completed.
So, is Stapleton placing his neighbors at risk?
Stapleton shrugs. “They’re more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by one of these animals.”
Animal rights activists have been trying for years to fence owners like Stapleton in, to force them to give up their wild animals that they claim live in bad conditions.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lengthy petition with Ohio’s Department of Agriculture, demanding it act upon the new law and remove the tigers from Stapleton.
Click Here: PETA Petition To The State
“Ohio needs to enforce what it came up with,” Delci Winders, Deputy General Counsel of PETA said.
“There’s no dispute that he is in blatant violation of that law.”
Letter of Surrender
Just days after NBC4 began to ask questions of the state, Ohio’s Department of Agriculture sent a letter to Stapleton, informing him he has “failed to complete his application.”
Click Here: Letter To Stapleton
The letter also makes it clear–Stapleton must now show the state he is exempt from the new law or surrender his tigers. Before the letter arrived, Stapleton made his position clear to anchor/reporter Duane Pohlman what his position would be if he ever faced this ultimatum.
Duane Pohlman: “Are you ever going to voluntarily surrender your tigers?”
Mike Stapleton: “No.”
Pohlman: “Why not?”
Stapleton: “Because that was my commitment to them, to bring them here and take care of them. This is their forever home.”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture released the following statement in regards to Stapleton:
Since the Dangerous Wild Animal Act was passed, the department has been constantly working with animal owners to discuss their options for coming into compliance. We have helped more than 60 of them obtain permits and worked with more than 50 owners to find new homes for their dangerous wild animals. Because we are always working on closing files and receiving new information on owners we were previously unaware of, the number of people who illegally have dangerous wild animals changes often. To date, we have closed nearly 100 investigations on dangerous animal owners who did not obtain permits or renew their permits. As our capacity for enforcement action allows, we will continue our work with those owners who are still not in compliance.
Mr. Stapleton is 1 of 8 animal owners who began the permit application process in the first quarter of 2014 but, despite numerous extensions from the department, never completed it. After a year of little to no progress being made on the part of the applicants, the dangerous wild animals program referred all eight cases to the department’s legal office on March 19. The department no longer considers those individuals to be working in good faith to come into compliance with the law.