Neighbor unsure about return of animals to Zanesville

ZANESVILLE, Ohio - A neighbor said he'd rather not have six surviving exotic animals returned to the neighboring Ohio farm where an owner killed himself after releasing dozens of animals that were hunted down by law enforcement officers.

Marian Thompson, the widow of the suicidal man, had sought Thursday to bring three leopards, two primates and a young grizzly bear that have been cared for by the Columbus Zoo for about a week back to the farm near Zanesville. But the state Department of Agriculture intervened just as she was about to retrieve them, ordering the animals kept under quarantine at the zoo instead.

Sam Kopchak's property abuts Thompson's, and he feels for her but would prefer not to have exotic animals as neighbors.

He said he found himself standing about 30 feet from a loose lion last week before it was killed.

"I'd rather them not be here after what I experienced because of having the animals being out in the situation we were in," he said Thursday. "And I think most of the neighbors around here would probably say the same thing."

Thompson's husband, Terry, set free more than 50 wild animals -- including tigers and lions -- in the rural area of eastern Ohio. Most of the animals were killed by sheriff's deputies armed with rifles.

The quarantine was issued as the zoo was unsuccessfully trying to stop Thompson from reclaiming the surviving animals.

The zoo said it had Marian Thompson's permission to care for the animals, which have been kept separate from other animals, but has no legal rights to them. A veterinary medical officer for the Department of Agriculture looked at the animals and determined they needed to remain quarantined as allowed by Ohio law, which provides for the agriculture director to quarantine animals while investigating reports of potentially dangerous diseases.

Thompson and her lawyer were informed of the order when they arrived at the zoo with a big truck on Thursday afternoon. The order is indefinite, but Thompson is entitled to a hearing within 30 days if she wants to appeal. Her attorney was traveling with her and could not be reached for comment.

Zoo president Dale Schmidt said Thompson and her lawyer "expressed that they feel these animals belong to her and she wants to exercise her rights." Department of Agriculture spokesman Andy Ware said it appeared the widow had planned to take the animals back to the farm.

Sheriff Matt Lutz of Muskingum County, where Thompson lives, said his office isn't taking a stance on whether the creatures should return.

"If she wants to bring them back here, to this farm, then we're working on what we're allowed legally to do to make sure that everything is safe and appropriate," he said.

The quarantine announcement came after Gov. John Kasich, upon learning the widow planned to retrieve the animals, asked the agency to ensure they didn't pose a health threat.

Kasich, a Republican, earlier this year let expire an order that might have prevented the Thompsons from owning exotic animals. Last week he signed a temporary order to use existing laws to crack down on such animals before new laws are proposed.

The Department of Agriculture said it was concerned about reports that the animals had lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease, and the order provides a chance to investigate their health. It prevents the zoo from releasing them until it's clear they're free of dangerous diseases.

A zoo official said Thursday that Terry Thompson had housed animals in tiny muddy shelters made of plywood, many without roofs. The grizzly bear was kept in an enclosure "about the size of a parrot cage," while the monkeys were found in a similar-size cage, chief operating officer Tom Stalf said.

"The facility was small with many, many animals -- too many for them to care for," Stalf said.

The animals have appeared healthy, perhaps a bit underweight, but the zoo did not conduct its standard medical tests because it doesn't own the creatures, Schmidt said.

"These animals are the innocents in this situation, and our job is to really take care of them as much as we can and make sure their welfare is looked out for," he said.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets, and efforts to strengthen the regulations have taken on new urgency since Terry Thompson opened the cages at his farm last week, freeing four dozen animals and then committing suicide.

Officers were ordered to kill the animals, including rare Bengal tigers, 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.

It's not unusual for Ohio to issue an animal health quarantine, and it does so about 150 times annually, said Ware, the agriculture spokesman.

Until earlier this year, Ohio was under an executive order that banned the buying and selling of exotic animals, but the newly elected Kasich let it expire, saying

the regulations were not enforceable. Last week he put in place temporary measures to crack down on private ownership. A study committee has until Nov. 30 to draft permanent legislation.

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