ROCK SPRINGS, Wis.—— Tucked amid the high bluffs of central Wisconsin, this town of 361 people appears to be like most others, with two old taverns, a gas station and a community center dotting its main drag.
But just up the hill, at the end of Pine Street, is the unexpected — a farmhouse with security cameras overlooking a barbed-wire fenced perimeter filled with 19 Bengal and Siberian tigers, six African and Atlas lions, four leopards and an African serval.
Such is the world of exotic animals in the United States, where in any barn, horse trailer — even bathtub — can be found Earth's most dangerous and poisonous species, native to areas half a globe away.
Most of these animals draw little attention, but the decision this month of a Zanesville, Ohio, man to cut free his 56 exotic animals before committing suicide has brought fresh, high-profile scrutiny on exotic animal owners that experts call more intense than ever.
That rural scene in Ohio — with police using side arms and sniper rifles to kill tigers, lions and leopards — has drawn nationwide outrage, fueling a full-court press from animal rights organizations pushing for Ohio and several other states to strengthen exotic animal laws.
While those groups have targeted states with weak laws, such as Wisconsin, they consider Illinois to have a strong ban on the animals. But there are exceptions to Illinois' ban — not only for zoos and research centers, but private owners who have a federal permit to exhibit animals to the public.
In Illinois, there are 104 such owners, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. But details on their locations were not immediately available.
While those exotic animals are regulated by the USDA, the Tribune found that state conservation and law enforcement officials are unaware of where many are located because owners are not required to notify state officials, who also do not receive that information from federal officials.
"That's the USDA's bureau, their oversight," said Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "We don't just get that stuff given to us."
Illinois began banning the new ownership of primates this year and has prohibited most other exotic animals since the Dangerous Animals Act passed in 1969.
Rafael Gutierrez, DNR's conservation chief, said it is up to all law enforcement officials in Illinois to enforce that law, but his department often gets called in to capture exotic animals.
Gutierrez said DNR handles six to 12 of those cases a year, but the issue isn't a main focus because the agency has numerous other duties.
Illinois cases have included the escape of a tiger at a Bloomington truck stop, a Burmese python found in a Rockford parking lot, a 3-foot alligator swimming in the Chicago River, a man mauled to death by a bear at a Flora petting zoo and an Elizabethtown man killed by his pet lion, among other incidents.
In recent weeks alone, Illinois authorities have confiscated illegal reptiles from two north suburban homes and used an undercover sting to bust a man selling illegal, venomous snakes downstate.
A 5-foot alligator was found living in a bathtub in a Cary home Oct. 14, and a 10-foot alligator and a caiman were found Oct. 19 in a Crystal Lake basement.
Experts say such isolated incidents — even cases when animals escape — draw attention that fades quickly. But the Zanesville incident, they say, has the staying power to drive change.
"I think absolutely this is going to cause a nationwide movement because this has elevated the national consciousness about this issue," said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA, a nonprofit organization that supports exotic animals but opposes their sale and trade.
"I believe a lot of the states, especially the most problematic ones, are going to start looking critically at their lack of legislation and move to change the problem they have," Roberts said.
Jeff Kozlowski wants Wisconsin to do just that.