'Why Daddy had to kill a tiger'
Motorists driving I-70 near Zanesville, Ohio, Wednesday encountered this warning of exotic animals on the loose.
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ZANESVILLE, Ohio -- Law enforcement officers Wednesday shot and killed nearly 50 wild animals -- including tigers, lions, bears and wolves -- released the night before by the owner of a private animal park who then committed suicide.
School was canceled and residents were urged to stay in their homes as sheriff's deputies with shoot-to-kill instructions tracked the animals around homes and through the woods of rural southeast Ohio.
The 49 animals killed included 18 tigers, 17 lions, three mountain lions, six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon and two wolves. Six animals -- three leopards, a grizzly bear, and two monkeys -- were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo.
By Wednesday night, only a macaque monkey remained loose, but authorities warned residents to avoid the animal because it might carry a virus dangerous to humans.
The 56 animals had belonged to Terry Thompson, 61, who was found dead Tuesday at dusk in the driveway of his 73-acre farm just outside the city after officers responded to a report of bears and lions chasing horses on the property. When deputies arrived, they could see the menagerie running free, trying to get out.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said he suspected Mr. Thompson let the animals out of their cages and then committed suicide, but no note was found and an autopsy is pending.
Sheriff Lutz said the deputies, armed only with sidearms and stun guns, were instructed to shoot because it was growing dark and officials feared the animals might escape into the woods. Two were shot in a neighbor's yard, he said.
"I'm glad that they had the courage to get out of their cars and keep the animals confined," he said of his deputies. "They risked their lives to get out. There were close encounters."
In one case, a bear charged a deputy before he shot it.
The Columbus Zoo dispatched a team of experts with hopes of tranquilizing the remaining animals, but with little success. A zoo veterinarian crept up on a full-grown tiger and shot it with a tranquilizer dart, but the tiger "got up, showed aggressive behavior toward her, and then it started running away," Sheriff Lutz said. The animal was then shot and killed by a deputy.
Celebrity wildlife expert Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, who was on the scene Wednesday advising law enforcement and doing media interviews, said the wild animals had to be killed and the deputies were troubled by what they had to do.
"They are feeling pain. They had to go home and talk to their children about why Daddy had to kill a tiger," Mr. Hanna said, reiterating that they had "done the right thing."
"My heart aches for the animals," he said. "But my heart also aches for all of the people who could have lost their lives."
"You're not taught anything about how to handle situations like this in academy training," Sheriff Lutz said.
He described Mr. Thompson as a troubled man who was separated from his wife and had recently been released from federal prison, where he had been serving a one-year sentence on weapons charges.
Sheriff Lutz said deputies had made more than 30 visits to the property over the past six years on complaints of loose animals or animal cruelty. Mr. Thompson had been convicted of misdemeanor charges related to animal mistreatment, he said.
Tom Stalf, chief operating officer of the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds -- a wildlife refuge near Zanesville -- described the conditions he saw at the farm as "horrible." The animals had been kept in row upon row of small kennels filled with mud and feces, he said. Some animals appeared pregnant, some malnourished.
Mr. Thompson, a Vietnam veteran who held several jobs, and his wife, Marian, 60, a retired grade-school teacher, began collecting exotic animals in 1996 when they attended an exotic animal auction. In a deposition given as part of her husband's federal gun possession case, Ms. Thompson said that for her birthday on that visit, Mr. Thompson bought her a baby lion that wasn't too healthy.
After that one purchase, she said: "Once you have an exotic animal, you're somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that's how it grew."
They not only bought or were given animals, sometimes -- Mr. Thompson testified in another deposition -- he would trade some of his valuable guns for an animal he wanted.
In media interviews and in depositions, the Thompsons maintained that they were collectors of exotic animals who wanted only the best care for their animals; that they were not dealers, and they never charged anyone to visit their animals so that they would not fall under the regulations of a commercial zoo.
Donna Swartz, who lives a quarter mile from the Thompson property, said Wednesday that she kept her cat inside after hearing about the escape on the evening news. She also lit every light on the property after her husband left for work before dawn Wednesday.
"We all knew he had exotic animals and we worried somewhat about it," she said.
But her family had a friendly relationship with Mr. Thompson, she said. "He was a friendly person. I had nothing against him."
John Callow, a former neighbor, said Mr. Thompson once brought a lion on a leash to a "pet share" event where families brought their dogs and cats. "It was very irresponsible," he said.
Mrs. Thompson assisted officers and zoo officials in the search for the animals and is expected to get the surviving animals back, Sheriff Lutz said. The dead animals were buried on the property -- at the request of Mrs. Thompson -- after someone tried to steal a lion corpse.
Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife regulatory specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, who had flown in from Chicago, and others blamed the incident on Ohio's weak restrictions regarding the management of exotic animals.
"Unfortunately rural officers ... are forced to deal with rampaging chimpanzees and tigers running amok because of lax laws," she said.
Mr. Hanna also called for a better law, but he said it must be drawn judiciously so that legitimate shelters for rescued wildlife can be maintained. "This can't happen again," he said.
Sheriff Lutz said he believed the situation would be a warning to the state. It was the largest mobilization of government resources he had seen in his three years in office, including that following the shooting of an officer.
"All they have to do is look at this incident and see what it does to the community," he said.
Research by Born Free USA, a nonprofit opposed to private ownership of wild animals, groups states into four categories: 21 states ban private ownership of exotic animals, eight states have a partial ban, 13 states require a permit, and eight states have no license or permit requirements.
The organization places Pennsylvania into the third category and Ohio into the fourth category.
"Pennsylvania's pretty far behind, but not the worst," said Monica Engebretson, senior program associate. "Ohio's in that group of the absolute worst states. It's not that they haven't known it's a problem -- they just haven't gotten their act together. It should also be a wake-up call to states that haven't passed strict regulations."
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order in January banning new exotic pets in Ohio and requiring permits for existing owners. Such permits would not have been issued to convicted felons.
Current Ohio Gov. John Kasich let the order lapse when it expired in April, instead creating a task force to rewrite the state's exotic animal regulations.
Mr. Kasich said Wednesday during a meeting of Dix Communications editors: "Clearly, we need tougher laws. We haven't had them in this state. Nobody's dealt with this, and we will. And we'll deal with it in a comprehensive way."
First Published October 20, 2011 12:00 am