Dangerous exotic animals deliberately freed in Ohio, officials say
The owner of an Ohio exotic-animal farm deliberately released his animals then killed himself, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said Wednesday.
Speaking at a televised news conference, Lutz said there have been numerous complaints about the operation of Muskingum County Animal Farm in recent years and that officials have made repeated visits to the facility. The 40-acre farm was home to about 50 big-game animals, including Bengal tigers, lions, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and grizzly bears.
The facility was owned and operated by Terry Thompson, whose body was found at the farm Tuesday evening, with some of the fierce animals prowling nearby.
"We've gotten about 35 calls since '04, '05, with complaints the animals were running at large and not being treated properly," Lutz told reporters. "We've handled numerous complaints here, we've done numerous inspections here. So this has been a huge problem for us for a number of years."
Lutz said it was clear from the evidence that the animals had been deliberately released and that Thompson had killed himself. No other suspects are being sought, he said.
Thompson "died from a self-inflicted wound," Lutz said. "He released the animals at some point, and the gates were open and some of the pens were also cut open."
The released animals have turned the area around Zanesville, Ohio, about 50 miles east of Columbus, into an open hunting zone as authorities tried to deal with the situation. At least one tiger was killed near a highway, and officials have had to use sidearms to confront some of the animals.
Lutz said that about 44 animals have been accounted for. At least six large animals remained on the loose.
The sheriff described one especially harrowing incident during which officials faced off against a 300-pound Bengal tiger.
"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.
"We are not talking about your normal everyday housecat 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.
“Public safety is our No. 1 concern," he said.
Lutz defended the killings, adding that in many cases there were no tranquilizer darts available to the 50 or so officials who sought the animals. After the animal release was discovered, he said, authorities were searching in Tuesday's growing twilight for black bears and big cats.
Schools in the area were closed as a precaution, and motorists were warned to stay in their vehicles.
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: A sign posted on Interstate 70 Wednesday warns drivers of dangerous animals loose in the area around Zanesville, Ohio. Credit: Matt Sullivan / Reuters