Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, we here at Intel are deeply practical of spirit. That’s why, when we heard the news that there were 56 wild animals on the loose in Ohio after the owner of an exotic-animal preserve apparently released them and then killed himself, our first thought wasn’t to consider what sort of sublimely self-destructive impulse deep within the human spirit might compel a man to do such a thing, to utterly submit in the face of nature at its fiercest and most feral.
Nope, we just wanted to know what the hell kind of insurance company takes on that kind of risk.
A very specific one. Zoo and wildlife-preserve insurance is a whole subset of the larger industry; a handful of firms specialize in it. Typically, they’ll write a blanket policy that covers the whole shebang, with very strict safety and facility requirements baked into the coverage. According to Mitchel Kalmanson, whose Florida insurance agency specializes in the “Weird, Wild, and Wacky” risks that other agents won’t underwrite, if Terry Thompson, the now-deceased owner of the preserve, was properly hedging his bets, he would have been carrying anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million of insurance on the place. Whoever underwrote the policy would also have been taking on Thompson’s ability to handle the animals as part of that risk, and so even if the death is proved a suicide, the insurance company will need to foot the bill for the capture-and-kill mission the Muskingum County Sheriff’s office undertook today. It’s possible that Thompson’s was a rogue, uninsured operation; that’s unclear at this point, and Ohio does have lax licensing laws — it’s one of just eight states that doesn’t regulate possession of exotic animals.
But though the zoo’s policy might not break out animals by their respective dangerousness, Kalmanson does — he’s the guy you call for coverage if you’re planning to walk a tightrope over a pit of live tigers, for instance. For a tiger — like the 300-pound Bengal tiger that was on the loose in Ohio today — he’d recommend a performer carries more coverage, perhaps up to $3 million. (Of course, that’s on the road, not inside a wildlife facility.) “Hot,” or venomous, animals pose a pretty large risk when uncaged, but under lock and key in a high-security facility — say, the Bronx zoo where a certain snake got loose earlier this year — they’re less likely to cause damage or get out than “smart, sneaky,” disease-prone primates — of which Thompson had plenty. “Snakes don’t have much of a brain,” says Kalmanson — a good thing, if you’re insuring them. Elephants could justify a higher rate still, and back when elephant rides were a common attraction at zoos, they were the rare animal requiring separate liability underwriting (a “disemboweling incident” at a “major public” zoo was the most expensive payout Kalmanson’s ever had to make: several hundred thousand dollars for medical bills alone).
Then there is the polar bear, which he’s insured for movies. “They’re just about the only animals who will hunt-seek humans as prey.” What else is tough? “Zebras are really nasty. They’ll kick you. They’ll bite you. I’ve seen them de-glove a girl, took all the skin off of her hand down to the bone.” The list goes on; where the animal-park patron sees a cute monkey, the underwriter sees feces-throwing, and the possibility of disease transmission. (Like, uh, herpes.)
Kalmanson is the first to admit that a person who is drawn to keeping wild animals might be a little unpredictable. “One guy we insured would go on TV and he would kiss the darn cobras,” he says. “Some of these people are just crazy.” Kalmanson, who grew up on a farm, is more of a sensible cat person himself, with “26 kitty cats in my backyard.” It emerges that this does not mean housecats — his personal collection includes lions, several varieties of tiger, a leopard, a cougar, plus an emu, a yak, and a “whole herd”of Watusi (“cows for the kings”). It’s the kind of menagerie that would be difficult to get insured, if he didn’t know a guy in that business. “Why am I willing to underwrite all of these risks? Because I understand the risk.” But also he understands something else: incentivizing precaution for his clients. With any policy, “I will write it with a very large deductible.”