56 exotic animals escaped from farm near Zanesville; 49 killed by authorities

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Authorities say that in all, 56 exotic animals escaped from a farm in Muskingum County Tuesday night, and one was still missing Wednesday afternoon.

Of those animals, 49 were killed. Six animals — a grizzly bear, three leopards and two monkeys — were captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and a monkey and a grey wolf were at large. The animals that were killed included 18 tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, one baboon and two wolves, Sheriff Matt Lutz said. The escaped monkey poses a danger because it is infected with herpes, the sheriff said.

The owner of the farm, Terry Thompson, was found dead Tuesday night on his property. Authorities say Thompson opened the cage doors and cut the wires on the cages, then killed himself. He died from a gunshot wound. Lutz said Thompson’s body was “bothered” by the animals.

Lutz had previously said a grizzly bear, a wolf and a mountain lion were missing. Today, authorities confirmed they killed the bear on the property last night. The wolf was later found dead; it had been shot Tuesday night. An officer wounded the mountain lion, which staggered into a neighbor’s property and died.

Thompson’s wife has returned to the farm and is talking to authorities. Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, said the wife begged authorities not to take her “babies,” but he convinced her to let the animals go and work it out later.

“I held her; I felt her shock. Her animals are gone. Her family is gone. Everything in her life is gone,” Hanna said.

The animals that were killed by authorities likely will be buried on Thompson’s property.

Lutz defended the shooting of the escaped animals. He said when deputies arrived at the house, there were large animals trying to escape. The deputies had to shoot them with their sidearms.

“Public safety was my No. 1 concern,” Lutz said. “I gave the order that if the animals looked like they were going to get out, they were going down.”

Hanna called this morning for the state to enact regulations to crack down on the possession, breeding and selling of exotic animals.

“I went to school at Muskingum (College),” he said. “It’s like Noah’s ark wrecked.”

Hanna said he has talked to the governor’s office about enacting stricter exotic animal laws.

“We need to set an example in the state of Ohio,” he said. “There was a loss of life here, and we thank God it was not human life. It was animal life, and that’s my life.”

Hanna also defended the deputies shooting the animals.

Lutz said that four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck immediately went to 270 Kopchak Rd., where a 73-acre “wild-animal-rescue farm” owned by Thompson borders I-70.

There, Lutz said, they found Thompson dead outside his house and “every single animal-cage door open.” Lutz said the deputies saw a number of animals standing outside their cages, still on the property, while others had escaped a fence that surrounds Thompson’s property. Deputies immediately began shooting animals, he said.

Lutz said the fence on Thompson’s property isn’t designed to keep in wild animals.

Lutz said a man who is a caretaker on the animal preserve told deputies that 48 animals lived in cages outside the house on the property. More animals — mostly monkeys, baboons and apes — lived inside Thompson’s house, the man said.

Those inside the house were still in the cages, Lutz said.

Lutz said Muskingum County deputies had fatally shot and killed at least 25 animals when they first drove to the property. A wolf and bear also reportedly were killed along I-70.

He said that officials from the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds came in shortly after the discovery with tranquilizer guns, hoping to capture some animals alive.

Thompson, 62, was released from federal prison just three weeks ago, after serving a one-year term.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had raided Thompson’s Kopchak Road property in June 2008, seizing more than 100 guns. In April 2010 Thompson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Columbus to two federal charges: possession of a machine gun and possession of short firearms without serial numbers.

Under terms of his release, Thompson was confined to his home for a year.

Thompson also was convicted in Muskingum County Municipal Court in 2005 of cruelty to animals, having an animal at large and two counts of rendering animal waste without a license. The charges stemmed from allegations that three cows and a bison had died on another property he owned, on Boggs Road in Perry Township, east of Zanesville.

Neighbors there had lodged numerous complaints about him letting his animals wander. Thompson was put on house arrest for six months and paid a $2,870 fine in that case. He also was ordered to move his animals to his Kopchak Road land.

Kate Riley, 20, who lives in western Muskingum County, said that Thompson has had lions, tigers and a bear get loose in the past.

Riley’s family owns a feed cattle farm nearby and said that Thompson would come and take their dead cows to feed his lions.

“He’d have claw marks all over him,” she said.

Riley said she understands that Thompson’s wife, Marian, recently left her husband and moved out.

Larry Hostetler, executive director of the Animal Shelter Society of Muskingum County, said the sheriff’s office and state officials had visited the Kopchak Road property in 2008 on a complaint that animals weren’t being taken care of there. The inspection, however, found acceptable treatment, Hostetler said.

Adelbert G. Kempf, Jr., a retired veterinarian in Heath, said he inspected Thompson’s horses that day. He said that Thompson told him that he was running a rescue operation for horses.

“He was far from that,” Hostetler said. “He was more of an animal collector.”

Dispatch staff reporter Kathy Lynn Gray contributed to this story. The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio/MCT.

Order that Kasich rejected would have barred man from having exotic animals

Alan Johnson

The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio/MCT

An executive order that Gov. John Kasich allowed to lapse after taking office would have prevented Terry Thompson from owning exotic animals.

The order, issued by Gov. Ted Strickland but permitted to expire by Kasich last spring, prohibited anyone who had been “convicted of an offense involving the abuse or neglect of any animal pursuant to any state, local, or federal law” from owning exotic animals.

Thompson, the owner of the more than 50 animals set free in Muskingum County, had an animal cruelty and two other related convictions in 2005.

Speaking at a conference in Canton, Ohio, today, Kasich called the situation “a mess” and a “terrible thing,” but took no blame for allowing Strickland’s order to lapse.

He added: “This has to be fixed.”

“This is unbelievable that this even existed, and what’s hard for me to understand is why Ohio over time didn’t deal with this, but we’ll deal with it now.”

Kasich said he would push a task force working on an exotic-animals law and regulations to move more quickly. He said the state also should deal with animal auctions being held around the state and do background checks on exotic-animal owners.

“If there’s some way I could’ve prevented it, I would. But what we have to do is move forward and make sure we can clearly limit anything like this in the future.”

Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the U.S., urged Kasich to issue an immediate executive order banning sale and transfer of exotic animals in Ohio.

“We need an emergency rule right away,” Pacelle said. “Nothing in the nation has come close to this number of large dangerous animals in a populated area.”

The previous largest wild-animal escape in the U.S. was in Idaho where 26 lions got loose, he said.

Bill Damschroder, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — the agency that would have enforced the executive order — said the Kasich administration determined that the executive order “exceeded the agency’s authority.”

Damschroder said legislation was not in place that empowered the agency to do the things required by Strickland’s order. In addition, it allocated no resources to do the statewide enforcement job.

In an interview with The Dispatch, Strickland said the order was “a common-sense compromise. … We tried to be fair in certain grandfather provisions. But someone with a record like this man was not intended to have these animals.”

Instead of renewing Strickland’s order, Kasich put Natural Resources in charge of a working group to craft legislation controlling the sale and ownership of exotic animals. That group has been developing a proposal for several months, but has not completed the task.

Strickland’s order would not have banned exotic-animal ownership overall, but it would have required owners to register their animals with the state.

Pacelle said the working group must quickly “finish up its work and develop a recommended bill to be passed by the legislature so we have a permanent answer to this problem.”

Alan Johnson is a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio/MCT