Owner of exotic animal preserve known for guns, run-ins with law
Terry W. Thompson, the man authorities say released wild animals from his preserve in Zanesville, Ohio, had a checkered history with animals and with the law.
After serving a year on weapons charges, Thompson was released from a federal prison in Morgantown, W. Va., on Aug. 26. He returned to Ohio, to a halfway house in the Cincinnati area, where he was freed on Sept. 30, according to federal prison officials.
Less than three weeks later, Thompson’s body was found at his wild animal compound, where officials say he killed himself after breaking open the pens and gates that held the more than 50 dangerous, big game animals he kept at his 73-acre Muskingum County Animal Farm. His body was found Tuesday in the driveway, several hundred yards past a gate.
Officials on Wednesday said they were still investigating what drove the 62-year-old man to apparently take his own life and set off the fierce hunt to capture or kill the wild animals before they could hurt a nearby student or unaware motorist traveling through the countryside about 50 miles from Columbus. But there were few surprised faces among those who knew Thompson. His had a history of run-ins with the law, and the farm was a long-standing problem, according to officials and public records.
“He had a long history with guns and exotic animals,” said Terri Wolfe, 48, who works at the Animal Shelter Society of Muskingum County.
Thompson was married and once worked at a Harley-Davidson dealership, Wolfe recalled in a telephone interview. In a casual conversation, Thompson seemed like an unassuming guy, but he displayed some over-the-top tastes, Wolfe said.
When Thompson, a former pilot at some point in his life, purchased a Corvette convertible from Wolfe a few years ago, he arrived in a helicopter to pick it up.
“That was pretty odd,” she said.
Locals were well aware of Thompson’s sprawling hillside property near Interstate 70, where drivers could catch a glimpse of camels and llamas roaming “like they were cows and horses,” Wolfe said. That frustrated some residents, particularly because Thompson’s backyard zoo was a few miles from a high school, but they had no way to make him close it down.
Thompson was fiercely proud of his brood. In 2007, Wolfe said, Thompson was asked to leave a local pet fair when he showed up with bear and lion cubs. The next year, organizers had to specify that only domestic animals were invited.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told reporters on Wednesday that Thompson and his facility were well-known to local officials, who had been fielding complaints since about 2004. Local officers had inspected the preserve in the past.
Those inspections were hardly Thompson’s only brushes with authorities.
In 2005, he was convicted in Muskingum County Municipal Court of cruelty to animals, having an animal at large and two counts of rendering animal waste without a license. The charges were from three cows and a bison that had died on another property Thompson owned.
In June 2008, federal agents raided Thompson’s property on Kopchak Road, seizing more than 100 weapons. In April 2010, Thompson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Columbus to two federal charges, possession of a machine gun and possession of short firearms without serial numbers, and was sent to prison.
Under the terms of his release, Thompson was confined to his home for a year.
This week’s incident forced the closing of local schools, expected to reopen on Thursday.
At last count, all of the animals, except for one monkey, had been accounted for, with about 49 killed and six taken to a local zoo. Thompson’s wife was very upset, Lutz told reporters.
"She’s lost a husband, she's lost a lot of animals she's been very close to," he said.
--Ashley Powers and Michael Muskal
Researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
Photo: Terry Thompson stands with some of his award-winning Percheron horses on his farm west of Zanesville, Ohio, in August 2008. Credit: Chris Crook / Zanesville Times Recorder