On the evening of October 18, 2011, Terry Thompson apparently released 56 exotic animals from his Zanesville, OH facility and then killed himself. The released animals included lions, tigers, leopards, bears, wolves and monkeys. Authorities killed 49 animals, a monkey was killed by one of the big cats, and six animals were taken to a zoo.
One of the surviving leopards was euthanized by the zoo, but the remaining five survivors will be returned to Thompson's widow.
Thompson, 62, apparently pried open the cages of his 56 outdoor exotic animals and opened the farm's gates shortly before shooting and killing himself on the evening of October 18, 2011. With less than two hours of daylight remaining, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz ordered his deputies to shoot and kill the animals.
Inside his home, Thompson kept orangutans and chimpanzees in cages, but those animals were not released.
Why Weren't Tranquilizers Used?
Zanesville Mayor Howard Zwelling stated that tranquilizers were used when feasible, but none of Lutz's deputies had tranquilizer guns. Several hours after Lutz gave the order to kill, a team of experts, led by the Columbus Zoo's director emeritus, Jack Hanna, arrived with tranquilizer guns. Hanna and The Humane Society of the US supported the sheriff's decision to kill the animals.
According to CNN, authorities killed 18 tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon.
Early reports that one animal was struck and killed by a motor vehicle appear to have been incorrect, along with reports that the menagerie included giraffes and camels.
One grizzly bear, two monkeys and three leopards were captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo. In January of 2012, one of the leopards was euthanized at the zoo.
On April 30, 2012, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Agriculture announced that the five surviving animals would be returned to Thompson's widow, Marian Thompson. The animals had been quarantined at the Columbus Zoo, but after the animals were found to be free of dangerous diseases, the agency no longer had the authority to hold them. Exactly when the transfer would take place was unclear.
What was Thompson Doing with the Animals?
The animals appear to have been pets. Thompson had been seen driving around town with a bear cub and liked to say that he loved animals.
In September of 2006, three of Thompson's Siberian tiger cubs were in the news when they were declawed by a local veterinarian. At the time, Thompson said that the cubs are handled by children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
History of Cruelty and Neglect
In April of 2005, Thompson was charged with one count of having an animal at large, two counts of rendering animal waste and one count of cruelty to animals. According to Assistant Prosecutor Ron Welch, Thompson had been warned at least 30 times in the past year about animals wandering off of his property. "The trustees of the township received numerous complaints, the sheriff's office received complaints along with animal control," Welch said. "The director of animal control also received numerous complaints that the animals were starving to death." Thompson was fined $2,870 and sentenced to six months of electronically monitored house arrest so that he could care for his 100 animals. At the time, Frieda Douthitt, a volunteer at the Zanesville Animal Shelter Society, said prophetically, "I'm disappointed that he's still allowed to keep the exotic animals."
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz admitted that his department had received numerous complaints about the animals at Thompson's facility since 2004. Thompson would threaten to release the animals when authorities came to his property to investigate allegations of animal cruelty and neglect.
What Went Wrong?
According to Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D, OH), "Ohio has some of the weakest laws in the country regarding ownership of exotic pets while having among the highest occurrences of incidents involving exotic animals and the public." The first thing that went wrong was allowing Thompson to keep the animals in the first place.
Alabama, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin have practically no laws on exotic pets, according to Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA. As a result of the Ohio ballot initiative compromise, the state was supposed to ban the "sale and/or possession of big cats, bears, primates, large constricting and venomous snakes and alligators and crocodiles," but did so only temporarily. Under the temporary order, current owners were grandfathered in, but those with a history of animal abuse like Thompson should have had their animals taken away from them. A lack of funding for enforcement meant that Thompson was allowed to keep his animals until the order lapsed and there was no longer a ban on exotic pets in Ohio. Leigh Henry of the World Wildlife Fund stated, "In Ohio and seven other states you can just go and buy a tiger with no requirement for any kind of license or permit."
However, Thompson should have had the animals taken away when he was convicted of animal cruelty in 2005. This was another chance to prevent the massacre of 49 of his animals.
Aside from his 2005 conviction, the plethora of complaints about escaped animals should have told state and local authorities that Thompson was not fit to keep the animals, and each of those complaints could have led to the animals being taken away. Humane Officer David Durst, who investigates every animal cruelty case in the county, told CNN, "We were just afraid that this was going to happen. It wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen, it was a matter of when." Durst received at least one complaint per month about Thompson's animals roaming loose.
Another mistake that contributed to this tragedy was the lack of tranquilizer guns. The sheriff's deputies had no tranquilizer guns, which seems unthinkable, knowing that exotic animals had regularly escaped from Thompson's farm for years. (Respond to the poll: Did Zanesville Authorities Do the Right Thing?)
This case is another reminder of why animals should not be considered property. Because the animals were property owned by Thompson, they must be returned to his widow. The best interests of the animals are not a consideration.
The keeping of exotic animals as pets is not regulated by federal law; such regulation is left up to individual states, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture opposes the keeping of large cats as pets.
While some may call for more regulation of exotic animals, the animal rights position is that we should not keep them in captivity, regardless of laws on safety or humane treatment.