“Underwhelmed” is an understatement. More like “scared,” “angry,” “panicked,” and “pissed off.” In fly-over country, it’s not often you see exotic wild animals coming over your fence and heading for your house. Well, unless you’re Noah. Or something. But that is indeed what happened in Zanesville, Ohio, when a private zoo owner decided to let his menagerie go, and subsequently eat a gun. Terry Thompson was the owner of a private zoo, filled with exotic animals. In fact, he loaned a photo crew a lion cub to pose with world-class spokesmodel and über-babe, Heidi Klum. He’d recently been released from prison, serving a year’s hitch for an illegal weapons possession charge, including the possession of five full-auto weapons. You’d think this would have been automatic, given he’d served a year in jail, but a court case to require forfeiture of the weapons was pending.
As you might suspect, his Own Private Daktari was none too popular with the neighbors. His little wildlife preserve was under assault by locals who found it objectionable when some of his charges went walkabout on their property. It’s one (It’s one thing to have to call the neighbors because their dog is digging in your yard. It’s quite another when their African lion is trying to break through your front door to eat your cat.) Apparently, the neighbors put in calls to their local sheriff’s office about once a month about animals roaming free. Thompson had acquired a rep for mistreating his animals, and was convicted in 2005 of animal cruelty. Yet nobody stepped in and put an end to his Doctor Dolittle act.
The stress of his marriage, the cost of feeding his animals and the recent stretch in prison proved too much for Thompson. So on Tuesday he unlocked the cages, opened the gates to his farm, and let the wild animals…well, run wild. Oh, and then he shot himself.
We’re talkin’ Bengal tigers, grizzly bears, apes, baboons, a lion, and a monkey that was suspected of being Herpes-B positive, among others. You always know you’re in for a ride when your neighbors say things like “We were just afraid that this was gonna happen. It wasn’t a matter if IF it was gonna happen, it was a matter of WHEN.”
Imagine driving down an interstate highway in eastern Ohio and seeing a sign reading “CAUTION EXOTIC ANIMALS.” Or seeing a lion walk out in front of your car and move to stand under a streetlight.
Where’s Ernest Hemingway when you need him?
Thompson’s neighbor, Sam Kopchak, saw lions and bears running free on Tuesday evening, and reported seeing a tiger chasing horses. Kopchak was able to get his own horse into his barn and himself to safety. “It was like a war zone,” Kopchak said.
Sadly, despite the fact that virtually everybody knew where this thing was headed, the sheriff’s office was ill-equipped to deal with wild animals on the loose. None of the deputies were equipped with tranquilizer guns. With night falling, the sheriff gave the order to shoot to kill. Authorities shot and killed at least 49 of the animals, including 18 rare tigers. (On a more positive note, range time will be a non-issue for participating deputies for some time to come.) The Humane Society had been involved, but the emergency order they pleaded for that was signed by then-Governor Ted Strickland had expired back in April.
Of the animals that were on the loose, only a grizzly, two monkeys and three leopards were taken alive. (Let’s hope Ohio doesn’t have a catch-and-release program.) The six animals were taken to the Columbus Zoo. One monkey was still unaccounted for, but because there have been no sightings, police speculate that one of the big cats had a little fast food, if you know what I mean. The final tally for the big game hunters in the Muskingum County sheriff’s office stands at:
- Two wolves
- Six black bears
- Two grizzly bears
- Nine male lions
- Eight lionesses
- One baboon
- Three mountain lions
- 18 Bengal tigers
In another ode to irony, Columbus Zoo Director-Emeritus Jack Hanna helped the Sheriff track down the animals on the loose. The dead animals were buried on Thompson’s property, at the request of his widow. Sheriff Lutz reported that one idiot attempted to steal an animal carcass.
So what’s the moral here? I got nuthin.’ I suppose you can make an argument for stricter laws concerning ownership of exotic animals, or laws that would set standards for the care of wild animals kept in captivity. You can certainly make an argument that laws could and should be streamlined to block convicted felons and/or those judged by the court/mental health professionals to be a danger to themselves and others from owning or possessing firearms. But we know that if someone wants a gun, they’ll find a way to get one.
For now, I suppose we can all just savor the weirdness of the whole story, and be grateful that this kind of thing is not just weird, but very rare.