By Carolyn Pesce and Dennis Cauchon
From: USA Today
ZANESVILLE, Ohio – The owner of a wild animal preserve released dozens of animals from their cages before he shot and killed himself and officials Wednesday continued to search for a mountain lion and grizzly bear still roaming the area
As daylight came to Zanesville, a rural area 55 miles east of Columbus, people were told to stay inside. Officers with assault rifles patrolled the area looking for the two animals and a monkey. An estimated 51 animals ranging from tigers and lions to cheetahs and bears had escaped the compound.
“It’s like Noah’s Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio,” said Jack Hanna, celebrity zookeeper and director emritus of the Columbus Zoo who attended a morning press conference with officials.
Zanesville Mayor Howard Zwelling said he got a call from the city’s safety director around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday that Terry Thompson, the owner of the farm, had set the animals free and then shot himself.
No suicide note was left. Officials said Thompson cut the gates on the pens so the animals could not be put back inside their cages.
Sheriff Matt Lutz painted a terrifying scene of animals running wild when authorities arrived at the preserve Tuesday night.
Many had gotten outside the fenced area around the property.
“Deputies were shooting animals at close range with sidearms,” he said. He said deputies did not have tranquilizer guns.
Lutz said safety was his primary concern because it was getting dark outside and “we could not have animals running loose in this county.”
Officers were on the interstate shooting animals to prevent them from getting into subdivisions. One cat was reported hit by a car on the interstate but still alive. Officers were on their way to put it down.
Zanesville resident Fred Polk Sr. said sheriff’s deputies shot three animals Tuesday night and they were still lying behind his house. They were an African lion, mountain lion and a bear that charged one of the deputies.
Once officials arrived with tranquilizer guns “we just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger, estimated at 300 pounds that was very aggressive,” he said. They “got a veterinarian close enough to get a tranquilizer in it” and the tiger went crazy and headed to a wooded area “and our officer had to put it down.”
Lutz said the department had been aware of the preserve for a number of years and has handled numerous complaints, brought in professionals to make sure the farm was safe and checked to make sure Thompson had legal permits.
He said the department has had about 35 calls since 2005 that were all checked out, “from animals running at large to being not treated properly.”
“This has been a huge problem for us for a lot of years,” he said.
One person who tried to steal the body of a dead cat Tuesday night was arrested and will be charged.
Tom Stalf, CEO of the Columbus Zoo, said the rough terrain and wooded area made it hard for officials to catch the animals.
“When we’re using tranquilizer darts we have to have a clear area to sedate the animal and once the animal is injected with the dart it still takes up to eight minutes for the drug to take effect,” he told CNN.
Lutz earlier described the animals as “mature, very large and aggressive” but said that a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.
The preserve had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. The biggest concerns were grizzly and black bears, lions and tigers.
Chimpanzees and an orangutan were found alive in pens inside the house. A black bear and a wolf made it to a field near Interstate 70 along with a large mountain lion.
Thompson was sentenced to one year and a day in prison in October 2010 for two federal counts of possessing illegal firearms and recently had been released. Thomas was charged after agents with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives served a search warrant at his home in 2008.
Three school districts in the region were closed and some private and special schools canceled classes. Flashing signs along area highways told motorists, “Caution exotic animals” and “Stay in vehicle.”
Tuesday night, more than 50 law enforcement officials — including sheriff’s deputies, highway patrol officers, police officers and officers from the state Division of Wildlife — patrolled the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars and trucks, often in rainy downpours. Neighbor Danielle White, whose father’s property abuts the animal preserve, said she didn’t see loose animals this time but did in 2006, when a lion escaped.
“It’s always been a fear of mine knowing (the preserve’s owner) had all those animals,” she said. “I have kids. I’ve heard a male lion roar all night.”
Lutz said Thompson’s wife, who was not at the home, had been contacted.
Lutz said his office started getting phone calls at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70.
He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup went to the animal farm, where they found Thompson dead and all the animal cage doors open.
He wouldn’t say how Thompson died but said several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot.
“He was in hot water because of the animals, because of permits, and (the animals) escaping all the time,” White said. A few weeks ago, she said, she had to avoid some camels that were grazing on the side of a freeway.
Bill Cooper, who lives on Whites Road, said he was concerned for his cattle and calves on his farm when he first heard about the animals being loose. He said he didn’t see any animals out but he and his wife heard several “pops.”
He said in the past he had heard animals moaning on the property and always thought something should have been done about it.
At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser remembered Thompson as an interesting character who flew planes, raced boats and owned a custom motorcycle shop that also sold guns.
“He was pretty unique,” Weiser said. “He had a different slant on things. I never knew him to hurt anybody, and he took good care of the animals.”
Weiser said he regretted that the escaped animals had to be killed. “It’s breaking my heart, them shooting those animals,” he said.
Bailey Hartman, 20, a night manager at McDonald, also said it saddened her that the animals were being shot. But, she said, “I was kind of scared coming in to work.”
Hartman said Thompson’s wife, who no longer lives with him, was her teacher in middle school and used to bring small animals such as a monkeys, snakes and owls to school. “It was a once-a-year type of thing, and everyone would always get excited,” she recalled.
In an interview with the Zanesville Times-Recorder in 2008 ,Thompson said he didn’t let his animals run loose.
“I’m not going to put anyone else, including myself and my wife, in danger or put my animals at risk,” he said. “I take precautions with them and with the people who come here.”
Thompson said then he had been rescuing and raising exotic animals since 1977 when he purchased a baby lion named Simba for his wife’s birthday.
“We went to an exotic animal auction and Terry bought me this baby cub as a present,” Marian Thompson said in the interview.
Terry Thompson said he was extremely guarded when talking about his animals but wanted the public to know that he cared for the animals because he loved them. He described his preserve as a non-profit sanctuary for animals.
“What I don’t have them for, is for profit,” Thompson told the newspaper. “I do not have these animals for money. I’ve never sold an exotic animal and have no intention of doing it.”
Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. The Humane Society of the United States has documented 22 incidents with dangerous exotic animals in Ohio since 2003, demonstrating risks to public health and safety and animal welfare.
In the summer of 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The caretaker had opened the bear’s cage at exotic-animal keeper Sam Mazzola’s property for a routine feeding.
Though animal-welfare activists had wanted Mazzola charged with reckless homicide, the caretaker’s death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.
This summer, Mazzola was found dead on a water bed, wearing a mask and with his arms and legs restrained, at his home in Columbia Township, about 15 miles southwest of Cleveland.
It was unclear how many animals remained on the property when he died, but he had said in a bankruptcy filing in May 2010 that he owned four tigers, a lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked his license to exhibit animals after animal-welfare activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.
Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said. The state requires permits for bears but doesn’t regulate the ownership of non-native animals, such as lions and tigers.
The Humane society on Wednesday urged Ohio to immediately issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals.
A previous emergency order issued by former Gov. Ted Strickland, which expired in April, prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals. Thompson had been convicted of animal cruelty in 2005. Thompson was convicted in December 2005 on one count of having an animal at large, two counts of rendering animal waste without a license, one count of cruelty to animals.
“How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals,” Humane Society Wayne Pacelle said in a statement.
Contributing: Cauchon reported from Zanesville; Tonya Shipley of the Zanesville Times-Recorder; Carolyn Pesce, McLean, Va.; Brian Gadd, CentralOhio.com; Associated Press
Read more: USA Today