It was a story everyone heard and no one understood: nearly fifty lions, tigers, and bears shot dead by police one evening near a home in Zanesville, Ohio. The eccentric owner, Terry Thompson, had taken his own life, having first smeared his body with chicken blood and released some of the animals from their cages. When police arrived on the scene, his half-nude, dismembered corpse was being feasted upon by some of the tigers he had loved as "children." One year later, the full story of this tragedy is finally being told.
In "Rough Beasts," Charles Siebert shares the perspective of the animals’ caretaker, John Moore, who until now has remained silent about the incident. One of the first on the scene, Moore helplessly witnessed the deaths of nearly all of the animals he had helped rear, many of whom were friendly toward people and had been defanged and declawed. His testimony helps clarify some of the strange backstory that preceded that fateful night. Terry Thompson was a charismatic and obsessive Vietnam veteran, whose war record is now called into question by Siebert’s investigation. How did his purchase of one lion cub for his beloved wife, Marian, lead to the creation of this large—and by all accounts chaotic and filthy—menagerie? Was it a testament to his renegade nature or a sign of mental illness? Why did he kill himself? Might his death have been staged, a conspiracy by the government to take away his "pets"?
Siebert’s gripping tale also confronts the issue of exotic animal smuggling—the third most profitable trafficking trade in the world. With so many species in danger of extinction, are men like Thompson modern-day Noahs or misguided and dangerous zealots? Could someone have prevented the sinking of this leaking ark?
Charles Siebert is a poet, journalist, essayist, and contributing writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. His work has appeared in a broad array of publications, including The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, Vanity Fair, Outside, Esquire, and Men's Journal.
The second of two Amazon singles (longform reporting that is a little too long to fit in a magazine but not really a book by itself) I have read today*. Both are short biographies of troubled men who's lives ended with a bang. In this report, a man who wanted to be larger than life -and mostly was -enjoyed having huge exotic pets around and even more enjoyed being seen with his huge exotic pets. At first, he treated them well -ah, he fed and housed them well. On the other hand, he had his bears, leopards, lions pumas declawed and defanged, which makes them cuddlier but doesn't really fit the description "well-cared for". Eventually, his home was filled with the animals - and their waste - and his death and the death of his giant pets was quite pathetic.
This is a case I find rather fascinating, as I do most cases of individuals who keep wild animals captive less as simple lapse in judgement about these animals' desire to be his companions (though that is part of it), but more due to having one's identity wrapped up in a belief that they are more powerful, desirable, interesting, or intelligent than everyone else because of their perceived special ability--an almost magical thrall--that they believe they hold because in caging (and thereby controlling) these "dangerous" animals they wield power over them. Often this extends into a belief that they either have a special sort of strength or dominance over the animals they've obtained, or that they have developed a sort of pseudo-scientific "system", that allows them to interact with these animals without being considered food, obstacle, or playthings by them, as one would normally. This belief is so firmly entrenched in their psyche that it frequently remains despite repeated accidents, injuries, close calls, or even deaths of friends or acolytes.
And this certainly holds true throughout this particular case, though I'll avoid giving details right now so as not to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't read the many news stories regarding what happened at this s0-called "zoo". For the true crime junkie, I think this is a particularly lurid and bizarre story, albeit not entirely unique, though few carry things out to as dramatic an end as this man did, having used (spoiler? Sort of? It was all over the news a few years ago, and I think the fact that this is a retrospective you are supposed to know this. It may be on the back of the book, even.) the animals (he claimed to care so much about) as attempted murder weapons.
I think the book is honestly awfully easy on this guy who exploited the animals he purportedly deeply loved and ultimately killed them all in an attempt to take his rage out on everyone around him. He ignored their needs, deprived them of the ability to express even the most basic normal species' behaviors, then used them as disposable killing machines. His firm belief in his ability to keep them from attacking anyone by refusing to feeding them blood...then opening all the cages and killing himself with the intention that they would eat his body shows that he had every intention of sending them on a bloodthirsty rampage to attack the neighbors (who complained about his neglect and negligence), their animals, and the animal control workers and police he held such contempt for. He knew those animals would be shot and killed, and he used them as pawns in his revenge plan, because ultimately it was all about his ego, no matter how many times and ways he tried to convince himself and others that he cared about these animals. Misunderstood, antisocial individualist? Hardly. Sociopath, indeed.
I'm grateful to the author for writing this book because I think it is extremely important that we understand this criminal profile if we are to attempt to mitigate the damage done to the people and animals who suffer the abuse this type of crime simmers in. It isn't exclusive to the exotic animal trade, though I think it thrives a bit more easily among the very lucrative trade in endangered and threatened animals (living or dead)-as-status-symbol. Similar crimes and variations on the theme have been unleashed (no pun intended) on individuals and the communities via the breeding and training of fighting dogs and certain types of innately abusive attack dog training that parallels that same magical "dominance" thinking that they--and only they--can control and interact with an animal they've made dangerous, that this makes them stand out and ultimately gives them the very toxic power high that others find when they amass arsenals. Only these weapons are thinking, breathing, sentient, abused, and broken animals who make mistakes in judgement or simply do what they would normally do had they not been taken from their homes in the wild--or what they've been taught to do every waking moment by the people who trained them to kill. It's one of the very peculiar cases where the weapon is the victim, too. Interesting stuff.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I really enjoyed this book. I live 3 1/2 miles from this residence, although when this took place I didn't'. I find it interesting and sad about this tragedy that will forever be remembered by all Ohioians. There was a brief mention in the book about there being a conspiracy theory, which involved local law enforcement, but that has not been substantiated. I just found the theory to be interesting. While no one really knows what was going through Terry Thompson's mind when he decided to take his life,this too, has been explained a very little bit. The caretaker John Moore was referenced in this book and he was also very involved with the police in the capture of the animals. He plans on writing a book from his own perspective. I will be anxious to read what he has to say. I would also like to hear more from Terry's ex wife about her take on all of this but I don't know if there is anything on that yet. This is such a tragedy that happened and I still get upset when I think back to that day and seeing all those exotic animals killed. This is an event that will always live on in my mind.
This is a very short and thus very easy read about the exotic pet hoarder that, apparently, committed suicide covered in chicken blood after releasing his bears, lions, tigers, and more - oh my! It's a messy seen, coming on the heels of divorce and firearm-related imprisonment. His apparent pre-suicide actions and the suicide itself makes me ask why this man could legally have guns, let alone predators. The predators themselves were largely de-clawed and de-fanged companion animals raised from cubs and most of the 49 killed probably could have been gathered and saved by the on-hand caretaker that knew them, but either the sheriffs on hand did what they felt they had to do given insufficient information and keeping public safety as the highest priority, or they took the opportunity to slay even in their cages mostly harmless animals that they had long sought to get rid of you. You decide.