Video: Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals

  1. Transcript of: Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We begin tonight with a strange and sad story out of Zanesville , Ohio . It started with a local man known as something of an eccentric and a criminal who'd served time in prison. He kept a wild animal preserve on his property, big exotic animals , the kind we see in zoos, until last night when he released the animals and took his own life . Police responding in the dark to protect the families in the area had no choice but to draw their weapons and bring down the animals . Those still on the loose today were tranquilized, taken away. The 48 dead animals include 18 endangered Bengal tigers , and there are only about 2500 in the world. Tonight in Zanesville it's mostly the scene of a terrible waste and a rekindled debate over private rights vs. animal welfare . We have two reports tonight, beginning at the scene with NBC 's John Yang . John , good evening.

    JOHN YANG reporting: Good evening, Brian . It was a tense and terrifying night. Fifty exotic animals roaming the hillsides. Not only those 18 Bengal tigers , but 17 lions. The sheriff said that they were big, mature and aggressive. Sheriff's deputies pursued them with assault weapons. Their orders were simple: Shoot to kill. By the time the sun came up in Zanesville , most of the animals that had escaped from Terry Thompson 's farm were gone.

    Sheriff MATT LUTZ (Muskingum County, Ohio Sheriff): One wolf, six black bears , two grizzly bears , nine male lions, eight lionesses, one baboon, three mountain lions and 18 tigers.

    YANG: It had been a nerve-racking night as local news broadcasts warned residents.

    CABOT REA reporting: Stay inside. There just might be a lion, a tiger or a grizzly roaming in your neighborhood.

    YANG: Thompson , the owner of a 73-acre exotic animal farm, had apparently set most of his animals free and then took his own life . Fred Polk , one of Thompson 's neighbors, saw many of the animals on his property.

    Mr. FRED POLK: I seen some mountain lions and African lions and, I think, three bears. One of the bears charged a deputy and the deputy shot it.

    Sheriff LUTZ: We don't go to the academy and get trained on how to deal with 300-pound Bengal tigers .

    YANG: Danielle White and her two children live right next door. For them it was a terrifying night.

    Ms. DANIELLE WHITE: The gunfire was very close to the house. I almost felt at one point that it may have been right in the backyard.

    Offscreen Voice #1: That is a bear.

    YANG: Today, schools were closed as a precaution amid new questions about the animal's owner. Neighbors and other area residents called Thompson eccentric. Late last month he was released after more than a year in federal prison on gun charges. Six of his animals , including three leopards, have been safely taken to the Columbus Zoo , but scores of others had to be killed to protect a community.

    Mr. JACK HANNA (Columbus Zoo Director Emeritus): Tragedy for the animal world is what it is. It could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world , and that's what we tried to avoid here.

    YANG: Tonight most of the exotic animals have been returned to Terry Thompson 's property and buried there. John Yang , NBC News, Zanesville , Ohio .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: This is Stephanie Gosk . An animal control officer shot a monkey on the loose last week in St. Cloud , Florida . This mountain lion attacked and mauled a four-year-old in Texas earlier this month. Both cases of exotic pets on the loose.

    Mr. JEFF CORWIN (NBC News Wildlife Expert): In the United States today there are thousands of people who keep exotic animals as pets. Globally, the market trade of creatures is a $20-billion-a-year industry.

    GOSK: Buying an exotic animal can be as easy as a click of the mouse. One site has up to 600 for sale. But state laws vary widely on regulating who can own what depending on where they live. According to the Humane Society of the US, 12 states ban the private possession of exotic animals , 28 states have restrictions and 12 states have almost none. Ohio is one of those states.

    Offscreen Voice #2: Damn, you got to be nuts if you want to keep one of these.

    GOSK: A new documentary highlights the sometimes murky business of exotic animal sales.

    Mr. MICHAEL WEBBER ("The Elephant in the Living Room" Director): I went to exotic animal auctions and I had to go undercover, and I actually had to go with bodyguards, too, because they didn't allow cameras in there.

    GOSK: Scott Shoemaker in Nevada is raising 30 animals , including six tigers and a 550-pound African lion . He says he spent more than $100,000 in caging and nine-feet wire fencing for his 10-acre property.

    Mr. SCOTT SHOEMAKER: Some guy lets his out. It's obviously not a caging issue, not a safety issue. The guy obviously had a mental issue. And why would I get lumped in with him? We have taken precautions here in being responsible.

    GOSK: Tonight the pressure is on Ohio Governor John Kasich to change the law. His office has been re-evaluating a proposed ban on exotic pets , Brian , that would have prevented today's incident.

    WILLIAMS: Stephanie Gosk and John Yang starting us off tonight from Zanesville . Thanks to you both.

NBC, and news services
updated 10/19/2011 9:39:33 PM ET 2011-10-20T01:39:33

The last wild creature thought to be missing after a night of mayhem on an exotic-animal farm was accounted for late Wednesday — a monkey carrying a potentially deadly virus apparently was eaten by one of the 49 carnivores shot by sheriff's deputies.  

The tragedy unfolded overnight Tuesday on a 73-acre farm near Zanesville. As neighbors nervously took cover indoors, officers spread out through fields and woods to hunt down about 56 animals, including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys.

Schools had 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."

Story: Animal advocates defend shootings on Ohio farm

At an Wednesday afternoon news conference, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said most of the danger had passed: 48 animals had been gunned down, and six captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo, authorities said. The animals killed included 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, a baboon and a wolf, he said.

That left just two animals at large: a wolf and the monkey.

By midafternoon, the second wolf was reported shot dead. The last animal, a monkey infected with herpes B virus, was found to have been eaten by one of the large cats, Lutz told NBC station WCMH.

The owner of the privately run Muskingum County Animal Farm, Terry Thompson, left the cages open and the fences unsecured before committing suicide, Lutz said earlier.

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 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 earlier. "It's been a situation for a long time."

Lutz defended his shoot-to-kill order, saying "we were not going to have animals running loose."

The animals that were shot were buried on the Thompson's property at the request of his wife, the sheriff said.

Lutz said when deputies arrived at the property, there was about an hour and a half of daylight left. He said officers had to shoot some animals at close range with their sidearms.

Image: A dead lion lays by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville, Ohio
Heather Ellers And Dustin Burton  /  AP
A dead lion lies by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville, Ohio, on Tuesday.

"These are 300-pound Bengal tigers that we had to put down," he said.

"I gave the order on the way here that if animals looked like they were going out, they went down ... We could not have animals running loose in this county, we were not going to have that," Lutz added.

Story: Ohio escape renews call for exotic-animal crackdown

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."

The Humane Society of the United States urged Ohio to immediately issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals.

"How many incidents must we catalogue before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals," the Humane Society's Wayne Pacelle said in a statement.

Video: Hanna: 'A wild animal is like a loaded gun' (on this page)

Police said Thompson had gotten out of jail recently after doing time for gun violations. Authorities have also responded to several complaints about wild animals housed on his farm, Lutz said.

"He was in hot water because of the animals, because of permits, and (the animals) escaping all the time," said White, the preserve's neighbor. 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.

Story: Animal advocates defend shootings on Ohio farm

"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."

Killing animals 'breaking my heart'
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, 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.

Thompson had permits to keep four black bears, said Laura Jones, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The department licenses only native species, Jones said Wednesday.

This article contains reporting from The Associated Press, NBC News, staff and Reuters.


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