Exotic animal farm owner had history of trouble

In an Aug. 2008 photo, Terry Thompson stands with some of his award-winning Percheron horses on his farm west of Zanesville, Ohio. Authorities said Thompson, a game-preserve owner, apparently freed dozens of wild animals, including tigers and grizzly bears, and then killed himself Tuesday night, Oct. 18, 2011.
Chris Crook,AP Photo/Zanesville Times Recorder

The Ohio man who set dozens of dangerous animals loose before apparently killing himself was no stranger to police, who had received numerous complaints about the exotic wildlife housed on his farm.

Muskingum County Animal Farm owner Terry Thompson left the cages open and the fences unsecured releasing lions, tigers, bears and wolves, before committing suicide, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Lutz announced that of the 56 animals dealt with, 48 were put down. They included 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, eight bears and a wolf, Lutz said. Six animals were captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo.

Late Wednesday, all animals were accounted for except one monkey.

Authorities would not say how Thompson 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 multiple complaints since 2004 about animals at the property. Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after pleading guilty to possessing unregistered guns.

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

Lutz said they were still awaiting the autopsy reports on Thompson's death. He also mentioned that Thompson's widow was at the scene and has been cooperative.

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 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.

A dead lion lays by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville Ohio, Oct. 18, 2011.
A dead lion lays by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville Ohio, Oct. 18, 2011.
AP Photo/Heather Ellers and Dustin Burton

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."

"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."

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.

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.

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.

Investigators walk around a barn as carcasses lay on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm, Oct. 19, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio.
Investigators walk around a barn as carcasses lay on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm, Oct. 19, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak