Hundreds of curiosity-seekers, horse-traders and others have attended an auction of the estate of a suicidal man who released dozens of exotic animals in eastern Ohio almost two years ago.
ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Homeowners took cover indoors Wednesday as sheriff's deputies with high-powered rifles hunted down and killed dozens of lions, bears, tigers and other exotic beasts that escaped from a wild-animal park after the owner threw their cages open and committed suicide.
After an all-night hunt that extended into the afternoon, nearly all of the 50 or so escaped animals had been either gunned down or captured alive, authorities said. As of midafternoon, the only animals still on the loose were a wolf and a monkey, according to the sheriff's office.
As the big-game hunt went on, schools closed in the mostly rural area of 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."
"It's like Noah's Ark, like, wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," said Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo. "Noah's Ark filled with tigers and lions and all leopards and a few monkeys and whatever, and it crashes here, and all of a sudden they're out there."
Officers were under orders to shoot to kill for fear that animals hit with tranquilizer darts would run off and hide in the darkness.
The owner of the privately run Muskingum County Animal Farm, Terry Thompson, left the cages open and the fences unsecured before committing suicide, Sheriff Matt Lutz said. Authorities would not say how he killed himself, and Lutz wouldn't speculate on why he did it or why he went out with what appeared to be one last act of vengeance.
But Thompson had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors, and Lutz said the sheriff's office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping from the property. Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.
"This is a bad situation," the sheriff said. "It's been a situation for a long time."
John Ellenberger, a neighbor of Thompson's, speculated he freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police.
"Nobody much cared for him," Ellenberger said.
Neighbor Danielle White, whose father's property abuts the 40-acre animal park, 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 owner) had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a male lion roar all night."
The sheriff said his office started getting calls Tuesday evening that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70. He said deputies with rifles went to the animal preserve, where they found Thompson dead and all the cages open. Several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot, the sheriff said.
Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres. Nearby Zanesville has a population of about 25,000.
Hanna defended the sheriff against criticism that the animals should have been captured alive.
"What was he to do at nighttime with tigers and lions, leopards, going out there?" Hanna said. "In the wild this would be a different situation."
Hanna told ABC's "Good Morning America" that if an officer shot a bear, a leopard or a tiger with a tranquilizer at night, "the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have his officer in danger of losing their life, and other people."
The preserve in Zanesville also had cheetahs, giraffes and camels. Lutz called the animals very big and aggressive but said a caretaker told authorities they had been fed on Monday.
White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson had repeatedly been in legal trouble.
"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 that were grazing on the side of a freeway.
At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said: "It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals."
Bailey Hartman, a night manager at a McDonald's, also said it saddened her that the animals were shot. But she said, "I was kind of scared coming in to work."
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 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland.
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.
Attorneys for Ohio told a federal appeals court Wednesday that the state's exotic animal law gives owners a pathway to keep the creatures if they choose and doesn't violate their constitutional rights.
Owners of exotic animals in Ohio would be required to meet new caging, safety and caretaking standards under proposed rules slated for review Wednesday by a legislative panel.
The types of animals being held at Ohio's new holding facility for exotic creatures won't be released to the public, mainly to deter anyone from trying to gain access to them, state Agriculture Director David Daniels said Thursday.
A federal judge has upheld Ohio's new restrictions on exotic animals after several owners sued the state over the law.
A federal judge is scheduled to begin hearing testimony Monday in a lawsuit involving Ohio's new law regulating dangerous wild animals.
A judge has ruled in favor of allowing the Humane Society of the United States to join the state in defending Ohio's new law regulating exotic animals.
Gov. John Kasich has cleared the way for Ohio to enforce temporary rules set by a board that was created under the state's new law on exotic animals.
State officials continue to work with owners of exotic animals to help them fully register their creatures with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, even though the state deadline for them to submit information was several weeks ago.
An attorney for animal owners who are suing over Ohio's new law regulating exotic wildlife says they've reached an agreement with state officials in the case.