Disputed exotic pets to be quarantined in Ohio

One of the three leopards that has been cared for by the Columbus Zoo since last week.

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The six surviving exotic animals freed by their suicidal owner in Ohio will be kept under quarantine at a zoo for now instead of going to the man's widow, the state Agriculture Department ordered Thursday.

WBNS: Raw video of the rescued animals at the Columbus Zoo

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was trying to stop Marian Thompson from reclaiming three leopards, two primates and a young grizzly bear that have been cared for by the zoo since last week, when Terry Thompson mysteriously set them free in a rural area of eastern Ohio.

The zoo said it took the six surviving animals with Marian Thompson's permission but has no legal rights to them. A private veterinarian for the Agriculture Department looked at the animals and determined they needed to remain separated from the other animals, said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich.

The quarantine order gives the Agriculture Department a chance to investigate the animals' health and prevents the zoo from releasing them until it's clear they're not a potential disease threat.

Thompson was to be informed of that upon arrival at the zoo and would not leave with the animals, Nichols said. The order is indefinite, but Thompson is entitled to a hearing within 30 days if she wants to appeal.

Attorneys who have represented Thompson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The animals have appeared healthy, though perhaps a bit underweight, but the zoo did not conduct its standard medical tests because it doesn't own the creatures, zoo President and CEO Dale Schmidt said.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets, and efforts to strengthen the regulations have taken on new urgency since Terry Thompson opened the cages at his farm near Zanesville last week, freeing four dozen animals that were later shot by authorities.

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Officers were ordered to kill the animals — including rare Bengal tigers, lions and bears — instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.

This Aug. 2008 photo shows Terry Thompson, left, and his wife, Marian, on their farm west of Zanesville, Ohio.
AP Photo/Chris Crook, Zanesville Times Recorder

It's not clear whether Marian Thompson wants to take the surviving animals back to the farm or to an alternate location, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz, whose office isn't taking a stance on whether the creatures should return to Zanesville.

"If she wants to bring them back here, to this farm, then we're working on what we're allowed legally to do to make sure that everything is safe and appropriate," Lutz said.

Sam Kopchak, whose property abuts Thompson's, said he has mixed feelings about whether Marian Thompson should get the animals back, because he found himself standing about 30 feet from an escaped lion before it was killed. He said he feels for Thompson and recognizes her loss but would prefer not to have lions and tigers as neighbors.

"I'd rather them not be here after what I experienced because of having the animals being out in the situation we were in," he said Thursday. "And I think most of the neighbors around here would probably say the same thing."

Until earlier this year, Ohio was under an executive order that banned the buying and selling of exotic animals, but the newly elected Kasich let it expire, saying the regulations were not enforceable. He last week put temporary measures in place to crack down on private ownership. A study committee has until Nov. 30 to draft permanent legislation.

Authorities and animal experts went to the Thompson farm three years ago during a cruelty investigation and found that some of the cages weren't padlocked and were secured with plastic ties, according to records released by the Muskingum County Sheriff's office.

They also thought the fences were low enough to allow the animals to get out.

Authorities in 2008 found animal pens scattered on the patio and driveway and several others inside the garage and basement. They had a black panther in the basement and two tigers and two lion cubs in the garage.

On a patio next to the Thompson's pool, two lion cubs and one black bear cub were housed in the same pen.

Marian Thompson was quoted in records released last week telling detectives that they took in the animals because no one else wanted them. She also said she was trying to end the practice.

"I'm going to put a stop to bringing in all these animals. I'm telling Terry, `No more,"' she said in a report filed April 13, 2005.

Supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gather outside the Ohio Statehouse to push for a ban on exotic animal ownership on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio.
AP Photo/Kantele Franko