Police seek escaped exotic animals in Ohio
October 19, 2011
ZANESVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Officers armed with assault rifles patrolled Zanesville Wednesday morning, a day after police killed dozens of animals that escaped from a wild-animal preserve, and where the owner’s body later was found.
Warning that more animals still were on the loose, officials expected up to four school districts to cancel classes as the remaining bears, big cats and other beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm were hunted down.
Close to 30 of the 48 animals were shot and killed on Tuesday. Officials were pondering how to dispose of the remains.
“These are wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa,” Sheriff Matt Lutz said at a press conference. He told residents to stay indoors and sent updates to them via Twitter. There were no reports of injuries to the public.
The fences had been left unsecured at the animal farm in east-central Ohio, and the animals’ cages were open, police said.
The preserve had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Police said bears and wolves were among the escaped animals that were killed and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.
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Lutz called the animals “mature, very big, aggressive” but said a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.
Tuesday night, more than 50 law enforcement officials — including sheriff’s deputies, highway patrol officers, police officers and officers from the state Division of Wildlife — patrolled the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars and trucks, often in rainy downpours. Lutz said they were concerned about big cats and bears hiding in the dark and in trees.
Neighbor Danielle White, whose father’s property abuts the animal preserve, 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 preserve’s owner) had all those animals,” she said. “I have kids. I’ve heard a male lion roar all night.”
“This is a bad situation,” Lutz said. “It’s been a situation for a long time.”
Lutz said his office started getting phone calls at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70.
He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the animal farm, where they found the owner, Terry Thompson, dead and all the animal cage doors open. He wouldn’t say how Thompson died but said several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot.
Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in his home, but those were still in their cages, Lutz said.
The deputies, who saw many other animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them on sight.
Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals.
Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the rural area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres.
White, the preserve’s neighbor, 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.
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.
Bailey Hartman, 20, a night manager at McDonald, also said it saddened her that the animals were being shot. But, she said, “I was kind of scared coming in to work.”
Hartman said Thompson’s wife, who no longer lives with him, was her teacher in middle school and used to bring small animals such as a monkeys, snakes and owls to school. “It was a once-a-year type of thing, and everyone would always get excited,” she recalled.
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 the summer of 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The caretaker had opened the bear’s cage at exotic-animal keeper Sam Mazzola’s property for a routine feeding.
Though animal-welfare activists had wanted Mazzola charged with reckless homicide, the caretaker’s death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.
This summer, Mazzola was found dead on a water bed, wearing a mask and with his arms and legs restrained, at his home in Columbia Township, about 15 miles southwest of Cleveland.
It was unclear how many animals remained on the property when he died, but he had said in a bankruptcy filing in May 2010 that he owned four tigers, a lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked his license to exhibit animals after animal-welfare activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.
Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said. The state requires permits for bears but doesn’t regulate the ownership of nonnative animals, such as lions and tigers.