Self-proclaimed animal lover Terry Thompson is the 62 year old Zanesville, Ohio man who released 56 exotic animals and then committed suicide on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Thompson, a Vietnam veteran, made the decision that left Sheriff Matt Lutz of Muskingum County no choice but to give the orders to shoot the wild animals. Local schools closed down and people remained in their homes as police hunted the wild animals for nearly 24 hours. According to The Columbus Dispatch, police shot and killed 18 Bengal tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, two wolves, and a baboon. One grizzly bear as well as three leopards and two monkeys were captured without incident and taken to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
One grey wolf and one possibly-herpes-infected monkey were at large as of Oct. 19, but the wolf was later found dead of its wounds which were probably inflicted by police officers or local hunters or farmers. Authorities speculate that the herpes infected monkey was most likely eaten by one of the large cats. Another of the large cats was struck and killed by a vehicle on a nearby highway.
Lutz stands behind his decision while facing some scrutiny for putting out a kill order on the escaped animals, saying that with night approaching he could not afford to have wild and dangerous animals roaming freely in the community and saw no way to safely capture that many animals without posing a direct risk to his officers and local residents; Public safety was his number one concern.
Thompson had a history with the Muskingum County Police who were called out to the Thompson farm on several occasions over the past few years. According to the Zanesville Times Recorder, along with keeping exotic animals Thompson kept horses, cattle, bulls, and buffalo. These more domesticated breeds were spotted and reported grazing several times on neighboring properties in the past few years, with one area woman claiming to have been aggressively charged by a full-grown bull. These repeated complaints led to police making several trips to the farm to advise Thompson on fencing requirements and safety precautions that needed to be met, which more often than not went unheeded by Thompson who made only minimum repairs and maintenance when these confrontations happened.
According to the Zanesville Times Reporter, Thompson was finally charged with animal cruelty in 2005 – but he was charged for neglecting his domestic animals, not for the condition of his pens that housed exotic animals. Although he was found guilty, he cooperated with the court and made the needed upgrades so he was able to keep his animals.
Thompson’s treatment of exotic animals on his property did not come into question until 2008 when he was charged with animal cruelty charges stemming from unsanitary conditions, inadequate fencing, improper size and placement of pens, and neglect in the form of malnourishment. Animals were found in pens that had an over-abundance of urine and feces, standing water, rotting animal corpses, and a lack of food and water. One lion’s tail was missing, which police believed had been bitten or clawed off by an animal in a neighboring pen. The Bellingham Herald reported that an anonymous neighbor said they saw a wolf being kept in an old car, a zebra housed in a horse trailer, a monkey in a cage that was too small for it to stand, lion and tiger cubs kept in plastic dog carriers, and two lion cubs and a black bear kept together on Thompson’s patio. Yet when several veterinarians and even some experts from the Columbus Zoo were invited to the farm, what they saw was that the state of the exotic animals they observed and their pens did not violate any current laws.
The Reporter also said that even though Thompson was found to be operating within the law, Muskingum County Police reported they still had concerns about the situation on Thompson’s farm stating that “the sheriff’s office still believes that the wild and exotic animals confined at the Thompson property constitute a serious risk to public safety.”
Now here’s another twist, in the same year he was investigated for cruel treatment of his exotic animals The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided Thompson’s home. They seized 113 guns and some ammunition. Of those weapons, 8 were found to be lacking serial numbers and in 2010 Thompson plead guilty to two counts of possession of illegal firearms and was sentenced to serve one year plus one day in federal prison. He was released only recently, on Sept. 30, and was still on probation from his time in prison when he released his wild animals and took his own life. By then he was separated from his wife, and according to the Washington Post he owed $38,000 in back taxes to the IRS and had two federal tax liens filed against him in 2010. A deputy’s report stated Thompson told him that since being released from prison he had been having trouble controlling his animals, supposedly because he was away for so long.
Unfortunately there are no clear answers to the obvious questions, yet many people are pointing fingers. In this time of uncertainty many animal rights groups are pushing for legislation and regulations on the private collecting of wild animals. Currently, police in Ohio (and many other states) have no real authority over exotic or wild animal ownership, but earlier this year a bill had been sent to Ohio Governor John Kasich, which he pocket vetoed, that if- signed would have restricted the import of wild animals for private sale. Now amid strong social pressure he has signed an executive order to stop unlicensed exotic animal auctions, in a move towards making it harder for private collectors to get wild animals in Ohio. Perhaps a case of too little too late, is this law even coming from the right place? Was it an issue of rampant animal collecting or was it a social issue of financial desperation that ultimately contributed to this fiasco? While many are sure to have an opinion, unless some more evidence becomes apparent we many never know what led Terry Thompson to do what he did.