Nightly News   |  October 19, 2011

Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals

The town of Zanesville, Ohio was turned into a bizarre big-game hunting zone Tuesday night, after the owner of a wild animal park released more than 50 exotic animals including lions and tigers, before committing suicide. NBC’s John Yang and Stephanie Gosk have more.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

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.