Wells Scholars Professor: Lessons in balancing stewardship and ownership

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

On Oct. 19, 2011, Terry Thompson opened the cage doors of each of his 56 personal exotic animals and subsequently committed suicide. Fearing for public safety, police in Zanesville, Ohio, shot and killed 49 of the wandering bears, leopards, lions, primates, tigers and wolves.

Since dubbed the “Zanesville animal massacre,” the event brought worldwide attention to ownership rights and the treatment of exotic animals.

Douglas Kysar

Douglas Kysar

Douglas Kysar, the Joseph M. Field ’55 professor of law at Yale Law School, recounted the fateful fall Ohio day this week and offered lessons in property rights gleaned from the incident.

Kysar attended IU as a Wells Scholar and returned to deliver the Addison C. Harris Memorial Lecture at the Maurer School of Law and teach a two-week segment of the Class of 1941 Wells Scholars Program. He is the first professor in the program’s 25-year history who was also a Wells Scholar.

The lecture, “Living with Owning,” explored the relationship between stewardship and subjugation in modern society.

“Thompson shows us where stewardship fails, and responses that day show how stewardship might go forward,” Kysar said.

Stewardship offers a counter narrative to ownership. With 5,000 privately owned tigers in the United States, questions of ownership related to the concerns of exotic animal releases remain niche but necessary, Kysar said.

At the time of the release, Ohio had some of the least developed exotic animal restrictions nationwide. There were relatively few obstacles to purchasing any animal and raising it on private property. With few restrictions, Ohio became a haven for exotic animal lovers like Thompson.

The oscillating natural tendencies to both love and fear exotic animals played out in the days following the animal release. Subsequent legislation cracked down on exotic animal ownership, and exotic animal owners unsuccessfully challenged the legislation in the courts, unwilling to give up control of their animals.

Kysar said control is relinquished daily, to peers, political systems and technocracy.

“In the modern state, surrendering control is necessary,” he said.

But for exotic animal owners like Thompson, life, liberty and property rights are inseparable. For Thompson, his animals – his property — were necessary to his self-determination, Kysar said.

But ownership rights were squelched in the months following Thompson’s stunt. New laws required owners to implant microchips into the animals, even if the implantation procedure was life threatening, and the state levied exorbitant yearly fees to exotic animal owners unaffiliated with a zoo.

Ohio spent $3 million to build a containment center to house the large number of exotic animals it expected to confiscate following the new legislation.

Kysar’s research on the Zanesville incident points to the delicate and complex relationship between stewardship and ownership. Despite lessons Kysar gleaned from the Zanesville incident, he suggested the lessons are not generalizable.

“I wanted to lead with the story and tell it as empathetically as possible,” Kysar said. “And then I waited to see what lessons emerged, as opposed to imposing a narrative order.”

Even though Kysar insists his lessons cannot be generally applied, the push and pull of stewardship and ownership continue to color almost all property rights cases.

“If ownership and stewardship are a dichotomy, both ends of that dichotomy continually rely on each other to exist,” Kysar said.

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