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Sheriff: All exotic animals accounted for after farm mayhem

The last creature thought to be missing after mayhem on an exotic-animal farm has been accounted for: A monkey carrying a herpes virus apparently was eaten by one of the large cats.
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

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."

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.

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

"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.

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.

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.

"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.