Menagerie release results in the shooting deaths of 49 animals
BY GERALDINE BAUM, ASHLEY POWERS AND MICHAEL MUSKAL, LOS ANGELES TIMES
OCTOBER 19, 2011
Dead animals are seen on Terry Thompson's property where exotic animals
were kept in Zanesville, Ohio October 19, 2011. Dozens of exotic animals
including tigers, lions and bears were let loose on Ohio farmland by
their owner before he committed suicide, sparking a shoot-to-kill hunt in
which 48 of the wild beasts, including 18 endangered Bengal tigers, were
After the shooting stopped and panic subsided, only a monkey was still at
The death toll was 49. The carnage included one baboon, six black bears,
eight lionesses and 18 rare Bengal tigers. The owner of the private
menagerie also was dead. He apparently shot himself after loosing the
wild animals on a small community in rural Ohio.
"It's like Noah's ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," said Jack
Hanna, a former director of the Columbus Zoo.
But local residents and animal activists nationwide didn't speak of this
sad story in Old Testament terms. For them, it was a very modern tale of
inadequate laws, a night of terror, and innocent animals killed by
reluctant authorities who felt they had no other choice.
The first complaint came into the Muskingum County sheriff's office
Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. An animal had wandered off Terry Thompson's exotic
animal farm near the interstate. Then came another call_of another
Since 2004, there had been at least three dozen complaints about
Thompson's animals on the loose - a giraffe grazing by a highway, a
monkey in a tree. Typically, Thompson was fined $75. He'd also faced more
serious charges of animal mistreatment. Recently, he had served a year in
federal prison for gun possession and was ordered confined for a year to
By the time deputies arrived at his 73-acre farm Tuesday evening
Thompson, 62, was dead. He had cut open pens and unlocked the farm gates.
The tigers, black bears and lions were out, along with two wolves, a
baboon, a monkey, three mountain lions and two grizzly bears.
Sheriff's deputies, who discovered his body in the driveway, were
suddenly face to face with lions and grizzlies.
"I had deputies that had to shoot animals with their side arms," said
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told reporters.
Overnight nearly 50 armed officers headed out, in a driving rain, hunting
the area around the farm. Some wore night goggles to spot animals that
might be hiding behind trees. The zoo in Columbus, Ohio, which is about
55 miles east of Zanesville, sent veterinarians with tranquillizer guns.
In one harrowing incident, Lutz said there wasn't time to wait for a
tranquillizer to take effect:
"We just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger that must've weighed 300 pounds
that was very aggressive. We got a tranquillizer in it, and this thing
just went crazy."
And it was shot.
Word quickly spread that Thompson, well-known to locals as a strange man
with an obsession for exotic animals, had set his menagerie free. Schools
in the area were shuttered Wednesday and parents told to keep close watch
on their kids.
When Terri Wolfe, who works at the county animal shelter, heard the news,
she immediately called her son. His boys are 4 and 6, and "very curious
"Terry Thompson's animals are on the loose!" Wolfe recalled telling him.
"Make sure you keep the grandkids in!"
By Wednesday morning, 49 of Thompson's 56 animals were dead and buried on
his property at the request of his distraught wife. Authorities had
captured a grizzly bear, three leopards and two monkeys, and the animals
were on their way to the Columbus Zoo for safe keeping. The monkey, which
might be carrying hepatitis B, was still missing.
Almost 24 hours since that first 911 call to his office, Sheriff Lutz
described his deputies as exhausted and overwhelmed.
"We didn't go to the academy and get trained on how to deal with . . .
Bengal tigers," he said.
But citizens should feel safe, he added.
That wasn't going to be easy.
Locals were well-aware of Thompson's sprawling hillside property near
Interstate 70, where drivers could catch a glimpse of camels and llamas
roaming "like they were cows and horses," Wolfe said. That frustrated
some residents, particularly since Thompson's backyard zoo was a few
miles from a high school, but they had no way to make him close it down.
He was fiercely proud of his exotic lot and he liked to show them off. In
2007 he was asked to leave a local pet fair when he showed up with bear
and lion cubs, Wolfe said. The next year, organizers had to specify that
only domestic animals were invited.
He was also perceived as dangerously eccentric, if not unpredictable.
When Thompson purchased a Corvette convertible from Wolfe when she worked
at a local dealership a few years ago, he arrived in a helicopter to pick
it up. "That was pretty odd," she said.
Then in June 2008, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives had raided his property, seizing more than 100 guns. He
pleaded guilty to two federal charges and served a year in prison.
In the wider animal sanctuary movement, Ohio is known as a state that
inadequately regulates exotic animals. It ranks on the bottom with
Missouri, Nevada and Oklahoma among 25 states that have few _ or any _
regulations on the keeping of wild animals, according to a 2009 report by
the Humane Society of America.
"People die as a consequence of our reckless attachment to dangerous
exotic animals," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society
of America, said. "Now animals are dead because of an awful absence of
policy in Ohio."
Pacelle called on the Ohio governor to immediately adopt a ban on private
ownership of exotic animals.
Clearly, the laws are so fuzzy regular citizens of Zanesville also were
confused about who should be in charge of the animals usually seen from a
safe distance in a zoo.
On Wednesday, Wolfe said she fielded phone calls from terrified residents
who asked why the shelter where she worked couldn't round up all the
exotic animals. Over and over, Wolfe told them: "We deal with domestic
stuff. Cats. Dogs. Not bears."