Zanesville Animal Tragedy Echoes 'Ridge' Plot

The events in Ohio involving the release of dozens of exotic animals eerily parallel parts of Michael Koryta's latest book: The Ridge. Koryta talks to Ari Shapiro about the challenges of regulating exotic animal ownership.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host: The world watched a bizarre and tragic series of events in the small town of Zanesville, Ohio this week. Forty-nine exotic animals were killed by authorities there. The menagerie included lions, wolves, bears and monkeys. Their owner freed the animals before committing suicide. For award-winning novelist Michael Koryta, it's all strangely familiar, because the story echoes the plot of his latest novel, "The Ridge." Koryta had been standing by to help with the situation in Ohio when we reached him in Bloomington, Indiana.

MICHAEL KORYTA: We had hopes to have a more important role. I was contacted by Joe Taft, who runs the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana, which served as the basis for the cat sanctuary I wrote about. And at that point it appeared there would be a good number of cats in need of a home. And that is why Joe's facility exists. Unfortunately, by the end of the day there were not many left alive.

SHAPIRO: For people not familiar with your book, describe the really uncanny parallels between what you wrote and what happened.

KORYTA: Yeah, it was uncomfortable, really, to follow the story. The book opens with a suicide, and one of the climax scenes later in the novel is a situation in which someone is trying to intentionally free the cats. So when I read about it...

SHAPIRO: When you say cats, you mean tigers, large animals.

KORYTA: Tigers, lions, leopards, yes. And it was an odd parallel, certainly.

SHAPIRO: You'd been involved with large cat sanctuaries before writing this book. Correct?

KORYTA: I'd been involved with the rescue center in Indiana. I began going up there originally just as a visitor, then I became so fascinated with the place that I thought about writing the novel set in that location. And when the book was published, when it was done, actually, what I realized was I was having a hard time walking away from the center. And so I wanted to stay involved, if at all possible, to ask Joe if I could begin participating on the rescues, and he graciously allowed me to do that.

SHAPIRO: So where do you place this recent incident with the wild animals in Zanesville in relation to the other animal rescues that you've been a part of and heard about?

KORYTA: Well, obviously, this is an entirely different scenario because they had been released and they were, you know, roaming at large. That's a very different scenario. I've always gone into areas where they're enclosed - some of the cages are more secure than other - but you have the opportunity then to tranquilize and state(ph) the animals with some level of protection. And it can be difficult to get to them, but I've never seen anything, obviously, like what happened in Ohio. I can't say I was overly surprised to hear...

SHAPIRO: Why do you say that?

KORYTA: The more I've been around the center, the more aware I've become of just how poor many of these facilities are, particularly the private ownership of these cats and the lack of oversight in how well these cats are being cared for. It just, it doesn't surprise me that there was going to be some sort of a disaster at some point.

SHAPIRO: You know, I think many people were surprised to learn that a person could obtain, for example, 18 Bengal tigers, not to mention the lions and grizzly bears. What's the regulatory environment for these exotic animals?

KORYTA: In Ohio particularly, the state does not regulate exotic ownership at all. The USDA regulates if you exhibit the animals to the public, if you breed and if you sell. But in terms of private pet ownership, it's really up to the state. And the auctions where people are able to obtain these animals, the fact that there's no oversight has to be dealt with. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

SHAPIRO: Are these domestic auctions in the U.S. where animals like this are sold?

KORYTA: Yes. There are domestic auctions in the states where you can acquire these cats. What people realize once they've acquired the cats is that the care is very difficult. The fact that the care is so difficult and the acquisition so easy is a really alarming situation.

SHAPIRO: That's novelist Michael Koryta. His latest book is called "The Ridge." Thanks for talking with us.

KORYTA: Thank you.

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