By Seth Mnookin
On October 18, 2011, a 62-year-old, recently released convict named Terry Thompson freed eighteen tigers, seventeen lions, six black bears, and fifteen other "exotic animals" from a jumble of cages and pens on his 73-acre farm in Zanesville, Ohio. What happened next is not exactly clear, but it appears that Thompson pulled down his pants, smeared his crotch with chicken blood and viscera, and shot himself in the mouth with a .357 magnum. By the time authorities were able to recover his body, Thompson's genitalia had been eaten away; one or more of the animals had also gnawed on Thompson's head.
That those are some of the least remarkable details from the events that transpired that rainy October night should tell you something about the ensuing insanity. The first hint that something was wrong came around 5pm, when a neighbor named Sam Kopchak noticed a bear chasing some of Thompson's horses through a field; seconds later, Kopchak realized he was several feet away from a male African lion, who watched intently as Kopchak anxiously led one of his own horses to safety. By that point, there was barely an hour of daylight left before sunset -- and Thompson's farm was within a few miles of a nursing home, a gas station, a motel, and, most ominously, a school, which, at the time, happened to be hosting a children's soccer game on a playing field surrounded by woods.
That no humans beside Thompson died that day -- that none were even seriously injured -- is due in no small part to the work of the local sheriff's department, which hunted Thompson's menagerie through the night. Some of the beasts were killed as they wandered near I-70, which overlooked Thompson's property (one, a grey wolf, died after being hit by a car); others were shot close to what had been their homes. By the next morning, the tally of the dead included all of the animals listed above, along with three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, two wolves, and a baboon. The death toll was memorialized in a gruesome, apocalyptic photograph of the creatures laid out near Thompson's driveway: It was only by collecting the corpses that officials had any hope of keeping track of what was still roaming free. Even then, officials were relying on the memories of John Moore, who had been the animals' caretaker, and Thompson's estranged wife, Marian: At the time, Ohio, along with seven other states, did not require exotic animals to be licensed or registered in any way.
The Zanesville massacre, as it became known, was the type of story that magazine writers dream about: A lurid freakshow with enough legitimate news value to add a solemn gloss to a lengthy, nerve-jangling narrative. (I briefly considered trying to write about it myself; when I realized I wouldn't be able to, I suggested to one of my students in MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing that he focus his semester-long feature assignment on unregulated private zoos.) And sure enough, last February, GQ's Chris Heath and Esquire's Chris Jones published 10,000-plus word features on Zanesville (the stories ran in the magazines' March issues); Esquire was so excited about its piece that it put together an online video "trailer," which it released during halftime of the Super Bowl.
Both stories are quite good. To be sure, they cover much of the same ground: Each begins with a tick-tock of the moments just after Kopchak realized he was at risk of being attacked by a 400-plus pound predator, and each relies heavily on interviews with the sheriff's deputies involved in the hunt. The fact that there's enough that's unique in the two offerings to make both worthwhile reads raised the bar considerably for anyone trying to do another in-depth story on Zanesville.
That’s a bar that Charles Siebert doesn't manage to clear with Rough Beasts, a Byliner original that is both longer and less satisfying than either Heath's or Jones's articles. Early on, Siebert promises readers his work will provide new insights into Thompson: "In the year since the gunshots and the media blare, however, a clearer picture has begun to emerge of why Terry Thompson would go to such lengths to scuttle an ark that he and Marian had worked so long and hard to build together."
But the Thompson that Siebert portrays isn’t all that different from the picture of him that had already emerged – and unfortunately, he’s not all that compelling a character. Perhaps that is why Siebert includes scooplets that appear to be based more on speculation than on solid reporting: In one section, he uses the fact that Thompson "entered and left the Army a private second class," that he wasn't highly decorated, and that one of his commanding officers didn't remember him to accuse Thompson of fabricating his claims of being involved in secret rescue missions in Laos and Cambodia. That is almost certainly true, but the scant facts Siebert offers up don't rise to the level of a conditional proof; they certainly don't justify Siebert's claim that for Thompson "the added albatross of a made-up war-hero past" contributed to the "irresistible allure" of owning lions and tigers.
These type of sweeping claims and overreaching statements crop up again and again: "Many exotic animal owners actually think of themselves as misunderstood conservationists"; October 18, 2011 was "the day the world's remaining wildness seemingly died in Zanesville, Ohio"; Thompson's compound is "the world's largest and wackiest home petting zoo" and home to perhaps "the strangest interspecies domestic dance in history." (For my money, the estate of Jorge Hank Rhon, the former mayor of Tijuana, which is estimated to house 20,000 animals, including miniature monkeys who are made to ride dogs like jockeys, is just a tad stranger.)
Rough Beasts is also marred by florid constructions and confusing explanations. At one point, Thompson is described as an "entirely legal free radical." (You mean the cops didn't arrest him for walking around with unpaired electrons?) In another, Siebert describes Terry and Marian Thompson's relationship thusly:
There seems to have been something of a Stella DuBois-Stanley Kowalski dynamic to their bond. A petite blond beauty in the Farrah Fawcett mold, Marian— whose older sister, Christina, lived for many years in New York City and had a long-term relationship with bestselling novelist James Patterson— seemed to love, to paraphrase Kowalski, “being taken down off the fancy columns” of her own upbringing by Zanesville’s swashbuckling, grease-monkey speedster. ... At fairs and flying exhibitions and holiday gatherings, they were the veritable Doctor Dolittle duo of Muskingum County.
Never mind that run-on sentence. Put aside the fact that Siebert assumes all of his readers will know that Stella and Stanley are two of the main characters in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Ignore, for a moment, that Fawcett, at 5' 6½", was two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American woman. Is the take-away supposed to be that that Terry and Marian were protagonists in a publicly unfolding, psycho-sexual melodrama or that they were the embodiment of an affable, animal-loving star of a children’s storybook? Because I'm pretty sure it can't be both.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Rough Beasts is that Siebert’s “clearer picture” doesn’t include the single biggest change to result from the Zanesville massacre. In writing about how easy it is to acquire all manner of wildlife, Siebert describes Ohio as "one of eight states with no laws restricting the breeding, selling, and owning of exotics." That was true in 2011; however, last June, Governor John Kasich signed the Dangerous Animals and Restricted Snakes Act, which bars the ownership of the large cats and bears that comprised the majority of Thompson's collection. The law, which was recently upheld by a federal court, also mandates liability insurance for any animals already in the state, and requires that they be registered, get implanted with microchips, and receive specified standards of care. Surely this deserved more than the single, glancing mention Siebert affords it.
If Rough Beasts is so unsatisfying, one might ask, why bother spending 1,500 words discussing it? It’s a fair question. The answer is that, even after GQ’s and Esquire’s tomes, there are interesting and important questions stemming from Zanesville that have yet to be answered. What does the fact that there are more tigers living in captivity in the US than there are living in the wild in the rest of the world mean for the future of the species? Is there any scenario in which individual owners of endangered animals can play a positive role in their future? What are the consequences and implications of the fact that many captive animals are interbred willy-nilly? (Thompson's tigers were not Bengals, as was reported at the time; one anti-exotic pet activist referred to as mixed breed "fourth-generation Buckeye tigers.")
The best long-form journalism takes advantage of eye-catching events to introduce challenging and important questions to readers. Siebert, who has written about animal cruelty, elephant anxiety, efforts to save abandoned dogs, and “the animal self” for The New York Times Magazine, would seem to be a prime candidate to address these issues. But the Times apparently passed on the story – in his acknowledgements, Siebert thanks one of the Magazine’s editors for “the first read, way back when” – and Rough Beasts, like a frustrating number of science ebooks on important and worthwhile topics, isn't up to the standards we'd expect out of print publication.
Seth Mnookin is the co-director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing and a blogger at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The Truth Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, won the 2012 National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Award. Follow him on Twitter.