Andy Brownfield and Kantele Franko
ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Sheriff’s deputies shot nearly 50 wild animals in a big-game hunt across the Ohio countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw animals’ cages open and committed suicide in what may have been one last act of spite against his neighbors and police.
As homeowners nervously hid indoors, officers armed with high-powered rifles and shoot-to-kill orders fanned out through fields and woods to hunt 56 animals turned loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm by owner Terry Thompson before he shot himself to death Tuesday.
After an all-night hunt that extended into Wednesday afternoon, 48 animals were killed, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzlies and a baboon. Six others — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo. A wolf was later found dead, leaving a monkey as the only animal still on the loose.
“It’s like Noah’s Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio,” lamented Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo.
Hanna defended the sheriff’s decision to kill the animals but said the deaths of the Bengal tigers were especially tragic. There are only about 1,400 of the endangered cats left in the world, he said.
As the hunt dragged on outside of Zanesville, population 25,000, 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.”
Officers were ordered to kill the animals instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that animals hit with the darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
“These animals were on the move. They were showing aggressive behavior,” Sheriff Matt Lutz said. “Once the nightfall hit, our biggest concern was having these animals roaming.”
The sheriff would not speculate why Thompson killed himself and why he left open the cages and fences at his 73-acre preserve, dooming the animals he seemed to love so much.
John Ellenberger, a neighbor, speculated that Thompson freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police. “Nobody much cared for him,” Ellenberger said.
Thompson had rescued some of the animals at his preserve and purchased many others, said Columbus Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters.
It was not immediately clear how Thompson managed to support the preserve and for what purpose it was operated, since it was not open to the public. But Thompson had appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” in 2008 as an animal handler for a zoologist guest, said show spokeswoman Lauren Nowell.
The sheriff’s office started getting calls Tuesday evening that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville. Deputies went to the animal preserve and found Thompson dead and all the cages open. Several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot, the sheriff said.
Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Merry was among the first to respond Tuesday.
“All these animals have the ability to take a human out in the length of a second,” said Merry, who called himself an animal lover but said he knew he was protecting the community.
At an afternoon news conference, the sheriff said that the danger had passed and that people could move around freely again, but that the monkey would probably be shot because it was believed to be carrying a herpes disease.
Resident Danielle Berkheimer said she was nervous as she drove home Tuesday night and afraid to let her two dogs out in the yard.
“When it’s 300-pound cats, that’s scary,” she said. She said it had been odd Tuesday night to see no one out around town, and the signs warning drivers to stay in their cars were “surreal.”
Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.
At least nine people have been injured since 2005 and one person was killed, according to Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group.
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.
Kasich said Wednesday during a meeting of Dix Communications editors: “Clearly, we need tougher laws. We haven’t had them in this state. Nobody’s dealt with this, and we will. And we’ll deal with it in a comprehensive way.”