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Sheriff defends order to shoot bears, tigers

The sheriff who issued a shoot-to-kill order after dozens of exotic animals escaped from an Ohio farm defended his decision, saying "we were not going to have animals running loose."
/ Source: NBC, and news services

The sheriff who issued a shoot-to-kill order after dozens of exotic animals — including Bengal tigers, mountain lions and bears — escaped from an Ohio farm defended his decision Wednesday, saying "we were not going to have animals running loose."

Sheriff Matt Lutz said the owner of Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, Terry Thompson, appeared to have set the animals free and then taken his own life.

"It is still, still not a completely secure area," he said.

The sheriff told an afternoon press conference that as many as 56 animals on the farm may have been set loose. Authorities tracked down and killed 48 of them: 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzlies, one wolf and one baboon.

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

By Wednesday afternoon, only two animals were unaccounted for — a wolf and a monkey who may be carrying herpes B virus, Lutz said.

Four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the 40-acre farm after the first calls came in at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Later Tuesday, there were more than 50 law enforcement officials — including sheriff's deputies, highway patrol officers, police officers and officers from the state Division of Wildlife — involved in the search of the farm and surrounding area, often in heavy downpours.

Lutz said that when the deputies arrived, 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.

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

A dead lion lays by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville Ohio Tuesday Oct. 18, 2011. Police killed dozens of animals Tuesday that escaped from the wild-animal preserve where the owner's body later was found. Warning that more animals still were on the loose, officials expected up to four school districts to cancel classes as the remaining bears, big cats and other beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm were hunted down. (AP Photo/Heather Ellers and Dustin Burton)Heather Ellers And Dustin Burton / Heather Ellers and Dustin Burton

"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.

Tiger 'went crazy'He said that shortly before the press conference they had tried to tranquilize a "huge," "very aggressive" adult tiger, but it "just went crazy" and so officers "put it down."

Lutz added that when they first arrived on the scene, his officers did not have tranquilizers with them as they are not normally carried.

He also said one large cat was hit by a vehicle on a nearby highway.

Flashing signs along area highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."

Three school districts in the region and some private and special schools canceled classes after the news broke.

The preserve in Zanesville, about 55 miles east of Columbus, also had cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels, orangutans and chimps.

Earlier, Lutz said a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.

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."

Animals will be 'panicking'
Tom Stalf, senior vice president of the nearby Columbus Zoo, told NBC's TODAY show that people should be careful, particularly because the animals themselves would be afraid.

"These are all adult carnivores, so when we talk about the lions and tigers as well as bears, they are all dangerous, especially that they are now out of their area, their enclosures that they were normally in, so they are panicking as well," he told the show.

"They're definitely going to not be used to where they are at, so they are going to be scared, they're panicking, trying to figure out what is going on. They're going to be searching for a place to settle down and trying to, you know, just to calm down a little bit," Stalf added.

The Humane Society of the United States on Wednesday 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.

White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson had been in legal trouble, and police said he had gotten out of jail recently.

"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 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.

"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.

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 the summer of 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The caretaker had opened the bear's cage at exotic-animal keeper Sam Mazzola's property for a routine feeding.

Though animal-welfare activists had wanted Mazzola charged with reckless homicide, the caretaker's death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.

This summer, Mazzola was found dead on a water bed, wearing a mask and with his arms and legs restrained, at his home in Columbia Township, about 15 miles southwest of Cleveland.

It was unclear how many animals remained on the property when Mazzola died, but he had said in a bankruptcy filing in May 2010 that he owned four tigers, a lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked his license to exhibit animals after animal-welfare activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.

Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said. The state requires permits for bears but doesn't regulate the ownership of nonnative animals, such as lions and tigers.