Freed tigers, lions and bears cause panic in Ohio

ZANESVILLE, Ohio, (Reuters) – Dozens of exotic  animals including tigers, lions and bears were let loose on  Ohio farmland by their owner before he committed suicide,  sparking a shoot-to-kill hunt in which 49 of the wild beasts,  including 18 endangered Bengal tigers, were killed.

As the huge animals roamed inside and outside the 73-acre  (30-hectare) farm near Zanesville in eastern Ohio, schools were  shut and panicked residents were told to stay inside on  Wednesday. Authorities killed 49 of the 56 animals, some at close  range, including the tigers, six black bears, two grizzlies,  two wolves and 17 lions, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt  Lutz.

A macaque monkey, possibly carrying the Herpes B virus,  remained at large. A wolf Lutz said was on the loose actually  had been killed on Monday night, the sheriff’s office said.

One of the escaped big cats reached an interstate highway  and was hit by a car. Authorities posted electronic warning  signs, “Caution Exotic Animals” for motorists.

“We are not talking about your normal everyday house cat or  dog. These are 300-pound Bengal tigers that we had to put  down,” Lutz said. “I gave the order … that if animals looked  like they were on their way out, they were put down.”

The dead animals have been buried on the farm, he said.  Survivors were taken to the Columbus Zoo, including three  leopards, a grizzly and two macaque monkeys.

Owner Terry Thompson, 62, who had been charged with animal  cruelty 11 times since 2004, was found dead from an apparently  self-inflicted wound when authorities went to the farm on  Tuesday after reports of animals running free, Lutz said. They  found gates and animal pens open, but no suicide note.

“There were animals running loose outside the fenced area,”  he said. Some, including primates, were captured at the farm.

Lutz said animals kept at the farm included many types of  big cats such as cheetahs, mountain lions and leopards, in  addition to lions and tigers.

Authorities said they had received about 35 calls about the  menagerie over the years, ranging from animals running loose to  animals not being treated properly, Lutz said.

“We’ve handled numerous complaints here, we’ve done  numerous inspections here,” he said. “So this has been a huge  problem for us for a number of years.”

There were complaints that Thompson left horses  undernourished, then fed them to lions when they died, said  Larry Hostetler, executive director of the Muskingum County  Animal Shelter.

However, he met the bare minimum requirements for keeping  the animals, he said.

Thompson was released last month from federal prison on a  firearms conviction. Lutz said Thompson’s wife, Marian, was no  longer living at the farm. She will return to care for some  remaining horses, he said.

DANGEROUS ANIMALS    

Lutz described the freed animals found as “mature, very big  and aggressive.”

The sheriff said they tried to shoot some of the animals  with tranquilizer guns but encountered problems.

“We just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger that must’ve  weighed 300 pounds that was very aggressive,” Lutz said. “We  got a tranquilizer in it and this thing just went crazy.”

Barbara Wolfe, a veterinarian, said she shot a tranquilizer  dart into the tiger, but it got up and charged her from 15 feet  (4.5 metres) away. A deputy shot the tiger dead.

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