Police: 3 exotic animals still loose in Ohio

ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Townspeople cowered indoors Wednesday as deputies with high-powered rifles hunted down and killed lions, bears and dozens of other exotic beasts that escaped from a wild-animal preserve after the owner threw their cages open and committed suicide.

After an all-night hunt, at least 30 of the 48 escaped animals had been gunned down. As of mid-morning, officers were still hunting for a grizzly bear, mountain lion and monkey.

Schools closed, parents were warned to keep children and pets indoors and flashing signs along highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."

Exotic animal farm owner had history of trouble

"It's like Noah's ark, like, wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," said Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo. "Noah's ark filled with tigers and lions and all leopards and a few monkeys and whatever, and it crashes here and all of a sudden they're out there."

Neighbor Danielle White, whose father's property abuts the Muskingum County Animal Farm, 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 owner) had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a male lion roar all night."

White said Terry Thompson, the owner of the preserve, had been in legal trouble, and police said he had gotten out of jail recently.

"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 which were grazing on the side of a freeway.

At left: A dead lion lays by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville Ohio, Oct. 18, 2011.

Officers in the mostly rural area about 55 miles east of Columbus were under orders to shoot to kill for fear that animals hit with tranquilizer darts would run off and hide in the darkness.

Thompson left the cages open and the fences unsecured, releasing dozens of animals, including lions, tigers, bears and wolves, before committing suicide, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz.

Authorities would not say how he killed himself and no suicide note was found. Lutz wouldn't speculate on why he committed suicide. But Thompson had had repeated run-ins with the law, and Lutz said the sheriff's office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals at the property.

"This is a bad situation," the sheriff said. "It's been a situation for a long time."

Hanna said that of the three animals believed to be unaccounted for, he was most concerned about the mountain lion, because of its impressive leaping ability. He said anyone confronting these animals should not run, because they will give chase.

Hanna defended the sheriff against criticism that the animals should have been captured alive.

"What was he to do at nighttime with tigers and lions, leopards, going out there?" Hanna said. "In the wild this would be a different situation."

The preserve in Zanesville had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Lutz called the animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said a caretaker told authorities they had been fed on Monday.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. In 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland.

On Wednesday, the Humane Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April. The organization urged the state to immediately issue emergency restrictions.

"How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals?" Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO, said in a statement.