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“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.

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    • A few online articles on CNN and the like reported the deputies used “assault weapons” and “high-powered rifles”, so my assumption is a semi-auto AR-15.

      I grew up in Zanesville and my parents still live there. My aunt and uncle lived about a mile from Terry’s place. Fortunately, they didn’t see anything.

  1. I really hope this does not turn into the new bat sh*t crazy people’s flavor of the month. I dont live too far from a zoo and an exotic animals park. Forget zombies… I’d probably crap myself if I knew tigers, apes, lions, and grizzlies were on the loose in my neck of the woods.

  2. People are calling for stricter regs, but really… how common of an occurrence can this be? You have to have a guy with a crazy huge stash of dangerous animals, and he has to go suicidal and decide to let them out. And even then, everyone panicked for a bit, but no one was hurt…

    I mean, I’m not sure that more regulations on this is a bad thing… they just seem a bit, unnecessary. One dude in the whole state did something dangerous in probably the last 50 years related to this. If he hadn’t killed himself as part of the deal, he broke ten different laws letting them run wild anyway.

  3. This is all you are going to hear about for a couple of weeks. They’ll be proposing new laws that will only affect those who obey the laws in the first place. Wait, that sounds a lot like what happens when there is a shooting.

    The local radio station went as far as comparing owning an exotic pet to having a loaded gun. I guess I know where they stand both issues. Darn, I liked their music.

  4. There are some photos of all the carcasses lined up along the driveway. I’ve got a decent stomach, but it’s still sad to see that kind of carnage.

  5. I suppose you can make an argument for stricter laws concerning ownership of exotic animals…

    Based on what? The rampant cases of escaped exotic animals running around? This was an isolated incident caused by the insanity of one complete moron, and no more makes the case for increased regulation of exotic animals than does the actions of one Jared Lee Loughner make the case for stricter firearms regulation. Both issues were caused by a mentally unstable person doing something very stupid.

    As with firearms ownership, there are already a LOT of laws on the books in most states regarding keeping wild animals, and the exceedingly vast majority of those who do keep them safely without incident.

    The plain truth of the matter is that these creatures are slaughtered by the truckload in “developing” nations, and if not for private preservations, they’ll soon be gone forever. A few here and there in zoos does not make for the continuation of a given species.

  6. A strange thought just occurred to me. how does a monkey get Hep-B? Isn’t that sexually transmitted? I think I know why he killed himself….

  7. I am not sure that more regulations are the answer, but what if there were effective regulations? I know nothing about Ohio and its regulations concerning exotic animals, but it seems that there were inefficient regulations to hold this man accountable. If the sheriff was called monthly regarding animals that had escaped, then he should have lost those animals long ago. It is possible for government (us) to create effective laws that protect people and serve to better the general welfare of society. I know it is not popular to say, but good things can and do happen through our collective powers, just as bad things can and do happen.

  8. The captive-bred tigers weren’t “rare.” Only wild tigers are rare today. There are more captive-bred tigers in the United States than exist in the wild.

    • There are around 13,000 in the world. About 5,000 of them are in the US. Compared to, say, the Bald Eagle with a population of around 70,000, they’re pretty damn rare.

  9. Sad they had to put the animals down like that.

    That being said, this is a tempest in a teapot; in a few months, no one will even remember.

  10. This man had been convicted of animal cruelty in the past. I think he let a heard of bison and cows starve to death one winter. This seems to be similar to a gun dealer selling to a convicted felon. If the guy had to get permits to keep the animals, why were those not revoked when he was convicted of animal cruelty. It makes no sense that he was allowed to even have them.

    On a different note, burying the carcasses was wasteful. Meat from the bears(others maybe?) could be taken to Hunters for the Hungry and the pelts could be sold to recoup the ammo costs. You have to be practical in these situations.

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