Ohio Zoo Presses Charges Against “Cougar Petter”

Photograph via Josh Newell/YouTube

The Columbus Zoo in Ohio is pressing charges against 35-year-old Joshua Newell, after he jumped a facility fence to pet the cougars, filmed the encounter, and later posted the footage to YouTube last month. Newell told FOX-affiliate WBNS that his love of animals and the simple fact he was carrying a GoPro camera overwhelmed him, and he reacted to what he described as "the opportunity of a lifetime," to pet the cougars. "I said 'here kitty' as a joke, kind of like 'that cat is not going to come,' but here comes the cat, so I figured if the cat is going to go out of his way to get some loving, then I'm going to go ahead and jump the barrier and show him some love," Newell said.

The video shows Newell jumping the fence (from his perspective), walking up to a cougar, and petting it through a wire fence, for what he estimates was a 5- to 7-minute encounter. “They were purring, they were so loving,” he said. “I don’t know, cougars love me.”

Only a few minutes of footage made it to YouTube, but the clip has since gone viral and been met with ire from the zoo staff and the local sheriff’s office. Newell was arraigned on Wednesday, July 29, on a charge of criminal trespassing, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. The zoo issued a statement stating that Newell’s actions threatened the safety of the animals and visitors. “They want to call me an idiot for jumping into the killer exhibit, but my thing is, how easy it was to do. It was so easy,” Newell said. “If the Columbus Zoo wants to press charges against me, that’s fine. But if their biggest concern is safety, then they need to do something about the exhibits.”

The zoo responded by saying the exhibits are designed to let the animals behave as naturally as possible, but if there are more stunts like Newell’s, they will reconsider their designs.