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Ohio owner of exotic animals was deep in debt

Court records show that Terry Thompson and his wife had money problems dating to the 1990s but that their debt escalated in recent years. They owed at least $68,000 in unpaid income and property taxes.
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

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 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.

Overall, authorities say Thompson released more than 50 animals from the Muskingum County Animal Farm before killing himself. Dozens of escaped tigers, lions and other beasts were shot by officers.

Just six animals — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured alive.

This photo provided by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium shows one of three leopards that were captured by authorities Wednesday, a day after their owner released dozens of wild animals and then killed himself near Zanesville, Ohio. Sheriff's deputies shot and killed 48 of the animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears, a baboon, a wolf and three mountain lions. Six of the released animals - three leopards, a bear and two monkeys - were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo. (AP Photo/Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones)Grahm Jones / Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

The last animal that had been unaccounted for, a monkey infected with herpes B virus, was believed to have been eaten by one of the large cats,

The survivors were taken to Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The zoo is appealing for donations to help look after them.

On its website, the .

"Your donation will assist in defraying costs for the relocation, care and rehabilitation of the released animals in our care," the statement said.

WBNS-TV, citing zoo officials, reported that it had received call of support from across the country.

The animals were to be evaluated by veterinarian staff, the station said.

'Tragedy'The dead animals included 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions. Six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon, a wolf and three mountain lions were also killed. Authorities said the slain animals would be buried on Thompson's farm.

Thompson 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.

Karen Minton, Ohio state director for the The Humane Society of the United States, who shot the animals had had a difficult call to make, but added, "We think they did their job."

"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," she added.

Photos showing the went viral provoking visceral reactions among viewers, some of whom expressed their anger and sadness on social networking sites.

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.

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.

Sheriff Lutz said at about 8 p.m. Wednesday that they were confident all the escaped animals had been accounted for, .

"We're convinced that we do not have any animals running at large. [The monkey] was in an area where one of the cats actually killed one of the monkeys and we feel he could have been eaten by one of the cats," he said, according to the station.

NBC4i.com said that Columbus zoo had reached out to other zoos for possible placement. It reported the animals would be held in quarantine before being brought into the zoo itself.

Dead owner's wife owns animalsHowever, it said the animals still belong to the wife of owner Thompson.

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."

Lutz said they're not trying to take away the animals from Thompson's wife, NBC4i.com said. She was part of the decision and she would work with the zoo on visiting the rescued animals.

NBC4i.com said the zoo had called in extra security after reports of death threats from people who are pro-animal rights.

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. "In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries. ... Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it's time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end."

Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also called for emergency regulations and pointed the finger at Gov. John Kasich, saying the incident should serve as his "wake-up call."

"Surely, after this latest incident, enough blood has been shed for the state to take action," the group said in a statement.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.