Exotic animals endured abuse, neglect at Ohio farm, documents say
New documents released Friday show that the exotic animals caged at a backyard zoo in Ohio suffered abuse and neglect -- lacking basic necessities such as food, water and shade -- while the public was repeatedly placed at risk by ramshackle enclosures and animals on the loose.
Lion cages often lacked roofs, leaving "nothing to prevent the animals from...escaping," while other animals were kept in filthy, cramped pens, according to the reports. Pens were also located too close to one another, causing anxiety for the animals and, sometimes, injury: In one case, a tiger was missing its tail -- most likely because it slipped through an adjoining cage and was ripped off or bitten off by another animal.
Moreover, the documents suggest that Ohio law enforcement officials were unable to put an immediate stop to it all. (The state is well-known among animal rights activists for its leniency toward owners of exotic and dangerous animals.) Repeated phone calls to the Muskingum County Sheriff's Department were not returned Friday. The documents were posted on the department's website.
The town of Zanesville was in the news this week when Terry W. Thompson, owner of the Muskingum County Animal Farm, threw open the cages and pens holding his more than 50 big game exotics, including lions, tigers, grizzly bears, wolves and monkeys and then killed himself.
Law enforcement officials who were called out to the farm at dusk said they had little choice but to gun down most of the animals to prevent them from leaving the farm at nightfall, which would have given the creatures several hours of darkness to scatter into the region and jeopardize public safety. Six animals were rescued, and Thompson's estranged wife, Marian, has expressed interest in reuniting with them.
Again and again, the documents show, law enforcement authorities were called out to the Thompson compound on Kopchak Road over the years to follow up on dozens of complaints -- a lion on the loose, horses, cows and bulls breaking free and trampling neighbors' property, and a mountain lion sighting.
But the most serious allegations, according to the documents, came in 2008 and involved reports of animal cruelty and public safety abuses including:
--Improper fencing -- cages without roofs, cages secured by plastic ties and other makeshift methods. In some cases, relatively lightweight dog kennels were being used to secure lions and tigers. Authorities found lions in a pen surrounded by 8-foot-high fencing, leaving "nothing to prevent the animals from...escaping."
--Lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, wolves, leopards and mountain lions lacking food, water and shade and living in unsanitary conditions in cages caked with layers of urine and feces. In some cases, animals were living alongside rotting carcasses.
--Pens so tight that the animals, particularly tigers and lions, could not get sufficient exercise, or pens located right alongside each other, causing stress and anxiety for the animals.
--Lion cubs showing signs of bow leggedness due to malnutrition, a mountain lion suffering tremors, and sewage and standing water in the bears' pen.
--Injuries in need of treatment, such as a cut over a bear's eye, a horse with an injured leg, and lesions on a lion's hips.
Follow-up reports suggest that the couple made many of the upgrades demanded of them. According to some of the paperwork, authorities decided at one point that there was not enough evidence to seal a conviction on animal abuse charges or a court order against the Thompsons, and decide instead to work closely with them to remedy the situation. "I confirmed with Marian...that they would call the Sheriff's Office immediately if an animal ever escaped," the officer wrote in the report.
Some abuses in particular -- a lack of drinking water and sufficient feed -- were allegedly visible far beyond the compound's fencing, according to the documents.
In April 2005, neighbors complained about the Thompsons' calves, cows and cattle escaping because they are "starved" and in search of food. Later that same year, a neighbor reported that several of the Thompsons' horses had broken loose and surrounded her car, "licking the vehicle to get water from the rain." A law enforcement officer responding to the complaints noted that "cows are bellowing for food."
Again and again, neighbors told police they thought the animals were going hungry, and were not fed on a regular basis. Neighbors with a view of the property said the cattle were "lucky" when someone came by three times a week to drop off food. One neighbor in particular said she'd personally made well over a dozen calls -- to sheriffs, to animal welfare offices -- to no avail.
Neighbors raised cruelty and sanitation questions after noticing that several of the cattle died -- causes unknown -- and their remains were left within view of the road and in the same area where animals continued to graze and wander. Dead animals were ultimately placed in a "dead hole" on the property, documents said. "The smell of rotting flesh was very hard to stand," an officer noted in one of the reports.
One neighbor complained to police that "for some reason Mr. Thompson does not get into any trouble for this and does not have to pay for any of the damages" his animals cause on neighboring property.
Marian Thompson told authorities that she and her husband took in many of the animals because they were abused and unwanted. "They keep them because they are animal lovers," according to the report.
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Photo: A stuffed animal and a sympathy card are tied to the entrance of the Thompson property in Zanesville, Ohio. Credit: Reuters.