How Is the Zanesville Animal Panic Like Revolutionary France?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 21 2011 7:08 PM

Vivent Les Animaux

Comparing the animal panic of 18th-century Paris with Zanesville, Ohio.

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To shoot and kill large, wild carnivores running loose in a small town after dark strikes no one today as being unreasonable. Yet that fatal option suggested itself only once to the revolutionaries, about the same time that they voted to chop off the head of the worst wild beast of them all, the king. At that point, some began calling for the heads of the actual wild animals in the city, since they, too, were likely to devour the helpless people of France. They changed their minds rather quickly, though, on account of a dramatic shift in the political climate after the death of Louis XVI. Soon thereafter, the Committee on Public Safety made the unprecedented decision to create a ménagerie in Paris, where, in the name of public instruction, exotic animals were displayed to a delighted public. These included the animals that had been confiscated by the police four years earlier, as well as a lion, a domestic dog, a golden pheasant, and everything else that remained of the ménagerie at Versailles. (The angry rhinoceros had died of its own accord a few days after the king.) 

The wild animals in Zanesville must have seemed much wilder by comparison. The circumstances were themselves extraordinary. A man named Terry Thompson liked to collect things—guns, guitars, and wild animals. Struggling with heavy debts, he covered himself with chicken parts, set the animals free, and killed himself. Evidently, he was hoping that the animals would eat him. He did not get his last wish, because authorities interceded. The police in Zanesville blame the law for the animal carnage, because it was the law that made it possible for Thompson to collect so many exotic animals in the first place. But there’s a difference between what’s exotic and what’s dangerous. There are manifold wild creatures in our cities and towns, such as mice, crows, and feral cats—and they don’t bother most people because they belong there. They are integral parts of a cultural ecology, and so they aren’t feared,

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What about the monkey, though? It was believed to be infected with herpes B, and the police have stopped looking for it. The local sheriff says it might have been eaten by one of the other animals. But this monkey virus could be far more dangerous to humans than any of the lions or bears that were destroyed. It’s the epizootic transmission of disease from animals to humans (such as swine flu, bird flu, and HIV) that can kill people in huge numbers. Animals we tend to consider thoroughly benign—such as the cat, the mouse, and the deer—can infect us with toxoplasmosis, hantavirus, and Lyme disease. Yet nobody seems too worried about this missing monkey, because it may have already been eaten (as a surrogate for the humans that were not). Instead, we are told, six animals survived: three leopards, two monkeys, and a grizzly bear. They are now living happily at the Columbus Zoo.

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