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Exotic Animals Wreak Havoc on Central Ohio

On Tuesday, fifty-six exotic creatures — a menagerie that included wolves, monkeys, and eighteen Bengal tigers, an endangered species — fled their cages on a seventy-three-acre private reserve in Zanesville, Ohio. Friends described the couple who ran it as animal lovers, but they also had a history of run-ins with the authorities.

A day after the hunt began, authorities in the central Ohio city of 25,000 said they killed or captured all but one of the animals, a monkey. Officials believe one of the other animals killed it.

The creatures fled the reserve after one of the owners cut open their wire cages or opened the doors and then fatally shot himself.

The animals’ release set off a day of tense watches, frantic searches, and a news media frenzy in the rain-soaked hills along Interstate 70 an hour’s drive east of Columbus.

While there were multiple sightings of wild animals on farmland in and around Zanesville, there were no reports of any people being attacked.

Terry Thompson, who let the animals out, had assembled the exotic collection with his wife, largely out of their love of wild animals. There was trouble in their lives: Mr. Thompson was released from a federal prison three weeks ago after a serving a year for possessing illegal firearms, and friends said he and his wife were estranged. Mr. Thompson also had a history of animal abuse.

Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officials killed the creatures as they wandered the property or ventured out of nearby woods.

At least forty-nine were killed by Wednesday afternoon, most of them within 500 yards of their pens, including seventeen lions and at least one animal described as a big cat that was hit by a car as it tried to cross a street.

Six other animals — three leopards, a grizzly bear, and two monkeys — were shot with tranquilizer darts and sent to the Columbus Zoo. Various species of monkeys, found alive in cages inside the Thompson house, were also spared.

Jack Hanna, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, was helping the authorities at the scene and said that Ms. Thompson had begged them, “Please don’t take my babies,” as they tracked down the wild creatures.

Sheriff Matt Lutz took pains on Wednesday to illustrate the danger of using nonlethal force in such circumstances. He said that a veterinarian had tried to shoot a fleeing Bengal tiger with a tranquilizer dart, but that it either missed or only enraged the 300-pound animal. “It just went crazy,” Sheriff Lutz said. “We had to put it down.”

The sheriff described the killed animals as “mature, very big, aggressive” with “high potential” for being dangerous to humans. “We could not have animals running loose in this county,” he said. “We could not have that.”

The revolting scene is in part the result of the “less government is better government” mentality of the current conservative Republican Governor, John Kasich.

Gov. Kasich’s predecessor, Ted Strickland, understood it was necessary to make sure that anyone convicted of abusing animals not be permitted to own exotic animals. Gov. Strickland issued an executive order prohibiting felons from owning such animals, but when Gov. Strickland’s order came up renewal, Kasich just didn’t see the need.

As a result Terry Thompson was able to acquire his own private zoo. Many were large, exotic, and endangered animals, native to much warmer climates.  Most of Mr. Thompson’s wild animals lived in tiny cages. Before taking his life Tuesday night, Mr. Thompson let all of his animals go free and thus condemned them to death.

For the next twenty-four hours, area residents were told to stay indoors; school was cancelled for thousands of children, and deputies had to find dozens of exotic animals before someone was injured or killed.

Gov. Kasich described the situation on Wednesday,  “a mess” and a “ terrible thing,” but he refused, when asked, to take any responsibility for the tragedy. In fact, he stated that he didn’t understand why the issue of exotic animals was an issue at all:

This is unbelievable that this even existed, and what’s hard for me to understand is why Ohio over time didn’t deal with this, but we’ll deal with it now.

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