ZANESVILLE — Sheriff’s deputies shot nearly 50 wild animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions — in a big-game hunt across the Ohio countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw their 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 down 56 animals that had been 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. 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.
Those destroyed included six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon and three mountain lions.
“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.
“When I heard 18 I was still in disbelief,” he said. “The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is.”
As the hunt dragged on outside of Zanesville, population 25,000, schools closed in the mostly rural area of farms and widely spaced homes 55 miles east of Columbus. 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 those hit with 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.
Thompson, 62, had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors. Lutz said that the sheriff’s office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping onto neighbors’ property. The sheriff’s office also said that Thompson had been charged over the years with animal cruelty, animal neglect and allowing animals to roam.
He had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.
John Ellenberger, a neighbor, speculated that Thompson freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police. “Nobody much cared for him,” Ellenberger said.
Angie McElfresh, who lives in an apartment near the farm and hunkered down with her family in fear, said “it could have been an ‘f-you’ to everybody around him.”
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. He said he shot a number of animals, including a gray wolf and a black bear. He said the bear charged him and he fired his pistol, killing it with one shot when it was about 7 feet away.
“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.
“What a tragedy,” said Barb Wolfe, a veterinarian with The Wilds, a nearby zoo-sponsored wild animal preserve. She said she managed to hit a tiger with a tranquilizer dart, but the animal charged toward her and then turned and began to flee before the drug could take effect, and deputies shot the big cat.
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.
“It was like a war zone with all the shooting and so forth with the animals,” said Sam Kopchak, who was outside Tuesday afternoon when he saw Thompson’s horses acting up. Kopchak said he turned and saw a male lion lying down on the other side of a fence.
“The fence is not going to be a fence that’s going to hold an African lion,” Kopchak said.
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.”
Some townspeople were saddened by the deaths. At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said: “It’s breaking my heart, them shooting those animals.”
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.
“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.
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.”
Barney Long, an expert at the World Wildlife Fund, noted that tigers in general are endangered. He said there appear to be fewer of them living in the wild than there are in captivity in the U.S. alone. Over the last century, the worldwide population has plunged from about 100,000 in the wild to as few as 3,200, he said.
More than half are Bengal tigers, which live in isolated pockets across Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, he said in a telephone interview
“The tragic shooting of 18 tigers in Ohio really highlights what is happening on a daily basis to tigers in the wild throughout Asia,” Long added in an email. “Their numbers are being decimated by poaching and habitat loss, and that is the real travesty here.”