Born Free

sleeping lion
One of the lionesses at the Pittsburgh Zoo sleeping on a hot August afternoon.

A short while ago I posted on Facebook that I’d been enjoying the music from the 1966 movie Born Free and was remembering the movie, which always made me cry, in fact, even just hearing the music made me cry (as it does right now this minute).

That touched a chord with many others who remembered and felt the same about the movie wherein British game warden in Kenya George Adamson shoots and kills a charging lioness, finds her cubs, and raises them along with his wife, Joy. Two of the cubs are sent to a Rotterdam zoo as they grow, but Elsa stays with them as more or less a pet. When she causes elephants to stampede a village, they are told she must be sent to a zoo or rehabilitated into the wild.

It would have been far easier and perhaps less painful for them to simply send Elsa off to a zoo, and the months of teaching her to hunt and kill and to become part of a pride were frustrating and disappointing by turn, yet they were determined they would see her live her life as a free member of her own species in her own homeland. Elsa’s is the first known rehabilitation and reintroduction to her wild nature, the first time anyone had made contact again with an animal they had reintroduced into the wild, and the first to successfully reproduce.

So why do so many pull out the tissues when the music starts? Because the Adamsons had that same bond with her that any of us does with the animals in our lives, and for whatever reason it happens, it’s still painful to see that bond severed.

The Adamsons, however, understood that loving Elsa as they would a pet only worked on the plains of Kenya where she also had room to be a lion, and even there she was in danger for her actions. She would never be a house pet. They would not see her in a zoo. Returning her to the wild after training her what her role was became the best way to show their love for her.

What happened in Zanesville

I thought the news was of a tragedy with animals in some far country with little concern for animal welfare, that as many as 50 wild animals—or more, no one was quite sure at that time—released from a preserve of sorts were being shot on sight, many dead already.

Carcasses lay on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, Ohio.
FROM THE AP—Carcasses lay on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, Ohio.

Then I learned that it was happening in the state next door to me, Ohio, a little over an hour’s drive away in a fairly tame little community called Zanesville.

And like many others I’m still in shock that so many animals died that day, simply in shock at the volume of killing, and sadness about the many sentient beings who no longer walk the earth through no fault of their own.

I would never fault the police and all the authorities who did their best under impossible circumstances to contain and save the animals. Consider when one animal escapes from a zoo, or even from its enclosure but still in a zoo—it takes teams of experts often several days to search and surround and subdue one animal, and even then it can’t be saved when it’s endangering public safety in some way. The same would happen with a human considered mortally dangerous to the safety of others, the attempt at capture but the ultimate need to end the person’s life before others are harmed or killed; we hear the stories every day in the news.

Local police, state police and others charged with ensuring the public safety and enforcing laws are trained to deal with a rogue and dangerous human, but can still deal with perhaps one dangerous animal at a time. But not over 50 animals, many larger and much stronger and faster than humans with no fear or hesitation of humans, confused, hungry, and possibly frightened, doing their best to find food and a place they considered safe, with their “owner” lying dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his own driveway. And at dusk, prime time for hunting for some animals, but with increasingly poor visibility for human eyes and other senses, and residential areas nearby.

Experts from the zoo arrived as soon as possible and tranquilizer guns were used on the animals, but despite what most people think, the tranquilizer darts are difficult to aim and shoot even by experts because the animal is usually in motion, sometimes charging toward you, and they don’t just drop down in complete sedation when they are hit. The dose has to be determined for each animal’s size, weight and constitution, and sedation isn’t a knockout punch even for humans. It can take up to a half hour for it to take effect during which time the animal can often become more combative and even violent as the sedative affects their nervous system, sometimes making it even more dangerous than it was before. In a few cases, an animal had to be shot even after it was sedated.

Keeping exotic animals

The instigator of the situation was of course, Terry Thompson. It was a total act of selfishness for him to take his life and release all these animals he claimed to “love” but kept in squalor to the point of being charged with animal cruelty, as well as other federal, state and local legal violations and conduct in the community. Despite this he was still permitted to collect animals and house them as he saw fit. Not just any animals, but wild animals, exotic animals, not ones generally considered pets and about whom only experts really have enough knowledge to manage.

gorillas at the pittsburgh zoo
Gorillas at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

The real blame lies on the lack of regulation of keeping these animals as pets. This lack was not for lack of trying to enact legislation—in Ohio’s case the former governor had enacted an emergency measure to prohibit those convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals because violent incidents were occurring, but it had expired. Terry Thompson was either “grandfathered” in because he already owned the animals, or it was simply never enforced. In any case, there is still nothing in Ohio’s laws to prevent any ownership of exotic pets, nor in most other states, though Ohio is working on it at the moment. In states where there is a law, it’s often so watered down it hardly makes sense and is impossible to enforce, as Ohio’s new governor said of the measure that expired.

These laws are challenged and altered in part to protect zoos, who have an educated and skilled staff to manage their animals, and farmers who may raise animals like llamas from being subject to seizure of their animals, but often money talks, and in this case it’s often people who run businesses like animal parks and petting zoos who pressure a state to reduce restrictions or they’ll be out of business.

Humane Laws

And yet certain cities and towns in Ohio and other states are banning the ownership of pit bulls for public safety reasons, yet many people can’t tell a pit bull from a Labrador retriever.

And in Pennsylvania, the PA Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement approved a kennel license to the wife of a man whose license had been revoked and was convicted of animal abuse.

Also in Pennsylvania, which I cite only because I follow the news in my home state closely, pigeons are collected from cities on the eastern seaboard, caged and starved until they are catapulted into the air to be shot at by shooters who don’t always kill in one shot; pigeons are left wounded and suffering until they are stomped or have their necks twisted, but this isn’t considered animal cruelty.

stray black cat
Stray black cat.

And everywhere, it seems, people want to trap, poison or shoot stray and feral cats.

What’s wrong here? Why do we want to protect animals, yet we don’t seem to be able to enact and enforce laws that actually do that? In know we don’t all see animals in the same light, whether they be companion animals, wild animals, farm animals or what we call them, pets, livestock, breeding stock, products—at any point in time, one individual animal can be considered in all the categories above. Animals are a part of everyone’s life, not just pet owners and farmers and breeders and so on.

But even if some of us don’t keep pets or don’t consider animals as a part of our lives, most agree that no animal, regardless of its role in anyone’s life, should be treated with cruelty, abused, tortured or otherwise harmed intentionally. Yet we can’t even pass a consistent enforceable law regarding basic treatment for animals. Because of that, Terry Thompson could let cattle and bison starve to death on his farm because he “couldn’t get to them”, dogs live their lives in wire cages with no heat or human contact in order to produce designer puppies, and animals everywhere continue to suffer unintentional or intentional cruelty at the hands of people.

We have to let our voices be heard. Find out your local, state and federal legislators’ views on animal cruelty laws, and call or write to them to let them know yours. Being silent never helps anything, saying something can only do good.


All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

5 thoughts on “Born Free

  • Pingback: The Creative Cat - Born Free, 2

  • October 24, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for a thoughtful examination of the issues, Bernadette. All of us animal lovers have been deeply troubled by what happened in Zanesville, knowing that the police had no choice but still grieving that so many wild and (in the case of the tigers) endangered animals had to be destroyed. And all because of one man’s selfishness.
    Back in 1999, I interviewed a few people who were running wild cat sanctuaries, including actress Tippi Hedren. Hedren went on record then as saying, “Most states don’t have laws regarding the keeping of these big cats[, and,] more often, it’s more difficult to get a dog license than it is to have a lion or tiger in your backyard.” All of them, despite their love of the animals in their care, emphasized the fact that none of these creatures should’ve been a pet in the first place.

    • October 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      Tammy, it would be interesting to bring that article out now and see how much, if anything, has changed. Tippi was right then and still now in most states. I heard about the “animal marketplace” today on the radio, and Thompson traded guns for some of the animals, not even a cash transaction. Talk about under the radar.

  • October 24, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Bernadette, thank you for your thoughtful post on the terrible situation in Ohio. I appreciate that you talked about it with care and perspective. The police involved are not the bad guys, and I’m so glad you made a point of saying that.

    Your comment about parallels between trying to remove a dangerous animal and trying to remove a dangerous human reminds me of something in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, _The First Circle_. One of the prisoners is having a debate with another about right and wrong. Another prisoner comes up to him and whispers that he knows the difference: “The wolfhound is right, the cannibal is wrong.”

    We humans have a lot to answer for.

    • October 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Susan, I feel empathy for them. They didn’t want to shoot the animals, and as more than one said, they had to go home and explain to their kids why they had to shoot the lions and tigers and bears. The truth is that we’ve left no place for animals in our lives unless they are pets and do our bidding, and that doesn’t always work.

      I’ll have to rediscover Solzhenitsyn. I was young when I read several novels–not this one–and I understood it kind of superficially then. With the perspective of now it would be very interesting.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: