Jack Hanna says the scene of wild and dangerous animals running from an eastern Ohio farm after their owner freed them and killed himself was “like Noah’s Ark wrecking.”
“Not full of birds and things, just lions and tigers and bears,” the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium said today near Zanesville. “I can’t imagine any more animals that would be worse to have out here.”
Zoo staff members came to the property in Zanesville, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) east of Columbus, after Terry Thompson, 61, killed himself yesterday, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said. Investigators believe Thompson opened the cages of about 56 beasts before his suicide, Lutz said. Authorities said they answered many calls at the 73-acre spread over the years, including reports of animal cruelty.
Even as law officers tracked the feral escapees, Ohio officials are considering regulations on exotic and wild pets. Former Governor Ted Strickland issued an executive order banning their keeping before leaving office in January, though it expired under Governor John Kasich.
The order might have forced Thompson to surrender his menagerie, said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. Bill Damschroder, chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the order was unenforceable and that the Kasich administration is developing a law to regulate the ownership of wild animals. The Zanesville incident likely will speed its passage, Rob Nichols, a Kasich spokesman, said by phone.
Law officers shot 48 animals and buried them on the property, including 18 tigers, nine lions, eight lionesses, three mountain lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears and a baboon, Lutz said during a news conference at a makeshift operations center near the Thompson property. A gray wolf and monkey were still loose, and the monkey may be carrying a virus, Lutz said. Six other animals were taken to the Columbus Zoo.
Hanna, who has been a frequent guest on television shows including “The Late Show with David Letterman,” said he has received criticism because the animals weren’t merely sedated. It was too risky, and a tragedy for the animal world “could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world,” he said at the press conference.
Barb Wolfe, a Columbus Zoo veterinarian, said in an interview that she tried to tranquilize a tiger on the property this morning and was about 15 feet away when it roared and started charging, forcing police to shoot it.
“An agitated animal like that can really fight off a lot of anesthetic,” Wolfe said.
Lutz said his department received a call yesterday about 5 p.m. reporting that animals were loose. Most remained within 500 yards of Thompson’s property, though two were shot in a neighbor’s yard, he said.
An electronic sign along Interstate 70 near Zanesville flashed, “Caution Exotic Animals. Stay in Vehicle. Call 911 If Seen.”
Lutz said Thompson kept animals for many years, and that his department came 30 or 35 times since 2004 for reports of animal cruelty and other offenses.
There were rows of chain-link kennels about 6 feet tall, 7 feet wide and 10 feet deep on both sides of a driveway on Thompson’s farm, said Tom Stalf, director of operations for the Columbus Zoo, who was at the scene.
Larry Hostetler, 48, executive director of the Muskingum County Animal Shelter in Zanesville, said Thompson’s collection of animals “was a nightmare waiting to happen.”
“It’s a little bit of relief that it’ll finally be over,” Hostetler said in a telephone interview. “It’s been a horrible situation for the animals for quite some time.”
Hostetler said Thompson was “just a collector, a hoarder.”
Ashley Hartman, 26, who lives nearby, said farmers would bring dead cows or other carrion to Thompson to feed the wild animals. She said she heard gunshots last night as the animals were being killed and kept her three dogs inside today.
“I think they need to have more regulations for this,” Hartman said in an interview.
Strickland’s executive order banning exotic and wild animals as pets was in effect for 90 days beginning in January, said Pacelle, the Humane Society official. He said Strickland, a Democrat, issued the order in late 2010 and that Kasich, a Republican, is reviewing its reinstatement.
Pacelle said had the rule stayed in effect, Thompson might have been forced to surrender his animals because he was convicted of cruelty in December 2005. He was fined in five other cases for having animals loose from his property, according to Muskingum County court records.
Strickland’s order allowed those who owned wild animals before it took effect to keep them unless they had been convicted of abuse or neglect, Pacelle said.
Bill Damschroder, chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said in a conference call today that the executive order was not enforceable and couldn’t have been used to force Thompson to relinquish his animals. He said that’s why it was allowed to lapse.
Scott Zody, the department’s interim director, said a task force is developing new rules to regulate wild and exotic animals. He said Ohio now can regulate only the keeping of wild animals native to the state. Exotic animals such as lions and tigers require a federal permit, and only for licensed breeders or exhibitors, Zody said.
“We are going to take a tough stance on regulation of these animals,” Zody said.
In 2009, the Humane Society listed Ohio among five states with inadequate restrictions on wild and exotic animals. The organization released a list of 26 Ohio incidents since 2003 in which captive wild animals escaped or killed or injured people or pets.
“How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action?” Pacelle said in a prepared statement today.
Hanna said he’ll never forget the scene.
“This is like to me, probably one of the greatest nightmares in my life,” he said. “I’m going to go home and say I just dreamed all this the last 24 hours because I can’t imagine it’s even happening in a movie script.”
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