ZANESVILLE, Ohio — The owner of an exotic animal farm who killed himself after setting his menagerie of tigers, lions, bears and other beasts loose in the Ohio countryside was deep in debt, records show.
Terry Thompson and his wife had money problems dating to the 1990s, but their debt had escalated in recent years and they owed at least $68,000 in unpaid income and property taxes, according to the court records obtained Thursday.
Thompson’s collection of black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, leopards and other exotic creatures was no secret to neighbors or authorities who were called many times over the years about animals wandering away. But their escape this time was no accident.
Thompson, 62, unleashed them from his private Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, then shot himself. Authorities had to hunt down and kill or capture the animals as they roamed the rural area, and only one monkey is unaccounted for.
The man’s body was found near the empty cages with a bite wound on the head that appeared to have come from a large cat, such as a Bengal tiger, county Sheriff Matt Lutz said Thursday. Investigators have refused to speculate on his motive.
Thompson and his wife owed $56,000 in unpaid income taxes to the IRS and $12,000 in property taxes to the county. He also had two federal tax liens filed against him last year around the same he was sentenced to a year prison for possessing unregistered guns. Thompson got out of prison just last month.
He had rescued some of the animals at his preserve and bought many others, said Columbus Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters. The couple spent much of their time and money caring for the animals, neighbors said.
Most of the big cats and bears were declawed and had been bottle-fed by Thompson and his wife since the animals were babies, said Judy Hatfield, a family friend who visited the farm many times and said it wasn’t unusual to have a monkey jump on your lap.
“I know how much he cared for them, and he would know that they would be killed,” Hatfield said.
The sheriff said that he spoke with Thompson’s wife and that she was distraught over the loss of her husband and the animals.
“You have to understand these animals were like kids to her,” Lutz said. “She probably spent more time with these animals than some parents do spend with their kids.”
Sheriff’s deputies shot 48 animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions. Animal rights advocates agreed there was little local authorities could have done to save the dangerous creatures once they began roaming the area.
“What a tragedy,” said veterinarian Barb Wolfe, of The Wilds animal preserve sponsored by the Columbus Zoo. “We knew that … there were so many dangerous animals at this place that eventually something bad would happen, but I don’t think anybody really knew it would be this bad.”
As the hunt winded down on Wednesday, a photo showing the remains of tigers, bears and lions lined up and scattered in an open field provoked visceral reactions among viewers, some of whom expressed anger and sadness on social networking sites.
Some local townspeople also were saddened by the deaths. At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said: “It’s breaking my heart, them shooting those animals.”
Authorities said the slain animals would be buried on Thompson’s farm.
Will Travers, chief executive of the California-based Born Free USA animal welfare and wildlife conservation organization, said police had no choice but to take the action they did.
“It’s a tragedy for these particular animals, for no fault of their own they’ve been shot, and I can see how difficult that decision was for the police,” he said.
Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo, also defended the sheriff’s decision to kill the animals, calling deaths of the endangered Bengal tigers especially tragic.
Six animals — 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 possibly still unaccounted for in the mostly rural community of farms, widely spaced homes and wooded areas about 55 miles east of Columbus.
While the sheriff’s office said early Thursday that the search for the monkey was still active, Lutz said the animal may no longer be a concern. It’s highly likely the monkey was killed by one of the big cats, Lutz said.
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.
Veterinarian Wolfe had tried to save a tiger in a heavy bramble by using a tranquilizer dart, but the animal charged her then tried to flee. It had to be shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies.
“I was about 15 feet from him and took a shot, and it didn’t respond too much, and I thought we were OK, but within about 10 seconds he roared and started toward me,” she said.
Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Merry, among the first to respond on Tuesday, said he shot a number of animals, including a gray wolf and a black bear who charged him from 7 feet away. He said he’s an animal lover and only took pride in knowing he was protecting the community.
“All these animals have the ability to take a human out in the length of a second,” he said.
Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. Born Free USA says it has tracked 1,500 attacks on humans or other animals, and escapes by exotic animals since 1990, with 86 in Ohio.
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 and called for an emergency rule to crack down on exotic animals until the state comes up with a permanent legal solution.
“Every month brings a new, bizarre, almost surreal incident involving privately-held, dangerous wild animals,” Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society, said in a statement.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said Wednesday that the governor had called Lutz to commend his work and to ask him to be part of the process of putting into law what the executive order failed to do.
“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,” Kasich said earlier in the day at a meeting of Dix Communications editors at which the Associated Press was present.