ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Schools closed and motorists were warned to stay in their vehicles as officers with assault rifles searched Wednesday for bears, big cats and other beasts that escaped from a wild-animal preserve in eastern Ohio after the owner was found dead and cages housing dozens of dangerous animals were left open.
Authorities said a preliminary investigation indicates Muskingum County Animal Farm owner Terry Thompson killed himself Monday after freeing the animals. County Sheriff Matt Lutz said autopsy results were needed to make a final determination. Lutz had said earlier that the death was not suspicious.
Lutz said several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot. Police spent the night looking for the missing wild life, killing more than 30 of the roughly 50 animals. Authorities were still trying to determine exactly how many animals escaped.
As authorities warned that more animals still were on the loose, three school districts in the region and some private and special schools canceled classes.
Flashing signs along area highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."
The animals' cages had been opened and the farm's fences had been left unsecured, police said.
Officials were pondering how to dispose of the remains of dozens of the killed animals.
The preserve in Zanesville, about 55 miles east of Columbus, had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Police said bears and wolves were among the escaped animals that were killed and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.
Lutz called the animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.
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. Lutz said they were concerned about big cats and bears hiding in the dark and in trees.
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."
"This is a bad situation," Lutz said. "It's been a situation for a long time."
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 truck went to the animal farm, where they found the owner Thompson dead and all the animal cage doors open.
Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in his home, but those were still in their cages, Lutz said.
The deputies, who saw many other animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them on sight.
Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals after daybreak Wednesday. The zoo's director emeritus, TV host Jack Hanna, said that was something that could not be done in the dark.
"You cannot tranquilize an animal like this, a bear or a leopard or a tiger (at nighttime)," Hanna told ABC's "Good Morning America on Wednesday. "If you do that, the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have his (Lutz's) officer in danger of losing their life, and other people."
Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the rural area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres.
White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson 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 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.
Thompson had permits to keep four black bears, said Laura Jones, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The department licenses only native species, Jones said Wednesday.
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 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 nonnative animals, such as lions and tigers.
The Humane Society of the United States on Wednesday urged Ohio to immediately issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals. "
"How many incidents must we catalogue before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals," Humane Society Wayne Pacelle said in a statement.