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Video: Surviving Zanesville animals taken to zoo

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    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to that sad story out of Ohio where tonight authorities have buried 49 dead exotic animals, and the few that survived are being taken care of at the Columbus Zoo . All of them were released by an eccentric criminal who then killed himself. An update tonight from NBC 's Stephanie Gosk .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: In less than a day, Terry Thompson 's sprawling private zoo was all but wiped

    out. These are the survivors: three cheetahs, two monkeys and a bear, brought to the Columbus Zoo where Harry Peachy takes care of the big cats .

    Mr. HARRY PEACHY: This is not an animal you can just bring down to the vet.

    GOSK: Thompson had 18 tigers and 17 lions in Zanesville . This zoo, one of the largest in the country, has just three tigers and four lions. Each one costs about $17,000 a year to care for. This is a good example of the kind of care that big cats get at a zoo. It is a cold, rainy day in Ohio and these two have the right idea. They are relaxing comfortably in a heated cave. But Ohio has some of the weakest regulations for privately owned exotic pets in the country. And since 2003 , the Humane Society has documented 22 incidents involving these animals. Everything from pet escapes to attacks on humans. Mr. WAYNE PACELLE ( The Humane Society of the United States , President and CEO): Ohio has an enormous number incidents relative to states that have strong policies to forbid keeping dangerous wild animals as pets.

    GOSK: Tougher regulations may be a possible solution, but it took a painful lesson in Zanesville to get people talking. Stephanie Gosk, NBC News, Columbus .

By
TODAY.com
updated 10/20/2011 7:47:32 AM ET 2011-10-20T11:47:32
producer's notebook

About an hour’s drive from Las Vegas is where the wild things are.

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Scott Shoemaker didn't grow up with lions and tigers. But now he couldn't imagine living without them. To Shoemaker, who owns several "big cats” as he calls them, these exotic animals are family. "They all have individual personalities," Shoemaker told NBC News, "and I love them all."

Bam Bam is his African lion with a less than ferocious nature. "He's nicknamed the lazy lion," Shoemaker said. "He's slow, doesn't get excited about much. He's just a gentle giant. If you throw an inflatable toy to him, he won't pounce on it. He will paw it out, and nibble at it."

Video: 49 exotic animals killed in Ohio (on this page)

If Bam Bam is easy-going, Frosty, Shoemaker's two and a half-year-old tiger, is the class clown. "Frosty is a big goofball, just the way he plays," Shoemaker said. "I don't want to say he's a bull in a china shop, but I guess he forgets how big he is."

The other tiger on the property is known as Elvis, a name fitting of the property's proximity to the strip. "He loves playing with stuff," Shoemaker said of the three and a half-year-old predator. "He's a big cat, a big boy, he likes to play but he's very submissive. He doesn't want to offend."

Shoemaker's facility, which he runs with his partner, Zuzana Kukol, is licensed by the state of Nevada to house large and small cats, and wolves. It spans 10 acres that's fenced on the perimeters with 8-foot chain link with electric hot wires at the top and six inches above the ground, to deter animals to burrow. Shoemaker came on TODAY Thursday to talk about the dozens of animals in Ohio who were released into a residential community after their owner committed suicide. Shoemaker said the Ohio animal owner "set them up to be killed."

Story: Ohio escape renews call for exotic-animal crackdown

He defended private preserves on TODAY, and prides himself on the care he provides for his creatures.

Asked what they eat, Shoemaker joked "news reporters," before offering some insight into their diet. "They eat chicken, beef, pork, some eat fish, pretty much any raw meat," Shoemaker said. "We get the grocery store meat that has just expired and they set it aside for us."

Bathing isn't a problem, especially for the tigers. "They are in the water all the time," Shoemaker remarked. He also said the cats have routine check-ups with veterinarians. Shoemaker sees to the grooming and brushing, noting that he is very "hands on" with his pets.

Shoemaker often puts his tigers on a leash like a dog out for a walk, an unsettling sight for many, but not for the proud owner.

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"You form a bond with them. They each have individual personalities, they return the affection. I mean, it's not easy. It's a lot of work, but it's worthwhile. It's not something for everybody, because it's time consuming.”

Shoemaker said big cats sleep as much as 20 hours a day. For Bam Bam, dozing takes up most of the day.

In the morning he’ll go around and check on everyone in the enclosures near him,” Shoemaker said of Bam Bam. “He’ll lie next to one of the tigers and take a nap. Later he will move on top of his house and check out any movement in the valley or us working outside. The afternoons he will move to be under one of the misters in his enclosure and take a nap.”

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The naps continue into the evening. But there are also moments when the lion perks up, especially when Shoemakers’ dogs begin to bark. “If any of the canines start a ruckus, Bam Bam starts roaring, letting everyone know he is the big boy on the block,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker is aware of the obvious danger to humans. “We don’t rough house with them, we teach them not to bite,” he said.

And he cautioned that lions and tigers command respect and a commitment to keep them and people safe.

“It’s all cute and dandy when they are cubs,” he said, “but when they reach 200 pounds, it’s no longer fun and games. You have to train them. You are not a chew toy.”

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