ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Sheriff’s deputies shot nearly 50 wild animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions — in a big-game hunt across the state’s countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw their cages open and committed suicide in what may have been one last act of spite against his neighbors and police.
As homeowners nervously hid indoors, officers armed with high-powered rifles and shoot-to-kill orders fanned out through fields and woods to hunt down 56 animals that had been turned loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm by owner Terry Thompson before he shot himself to death Tuesday.
After an all-night hunt that extended into Wednesday afternoon, 48 animals were killed. Six others — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo. A wolf was later found dead, leaving a monkey as the only animal still on the loose.
Those destroyed included six black bears, two grizzlies, a wolf, a baboon and three mountain lions. Dead animals were being buried on Thompson’s farm, officials said.
“It’s like Noah’s Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio,” lamented Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo.
Hanna defended the sheriff’s decision to kill the animals but said the deaths of the Bengal tigers were especially tragic. There are only about 1,400 of the endangered cats left in the world, he said.
“When I heard 18, I was still in disbelief,” he said. “The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is.”
As the hunt dragged on outside of Zanesville, population 25,000, schools closed in the mostly rural area of farms and widely spaced homes 55 miles east of Columbus. Parents were warned to keep children and pets indoors. And flashing signs along highways told motorists, “Caution exotic animals” and “Stay in vehicle.”
Officers were ordered to kill the animals instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
“These animals were on the move, they were showing aggressive behavior,” Sheriff Matt Lutz said. “Once the nightfall hit, our biggest concern was having these animals roaming.”
The sheriff would not speculate why Thompson killed himself and why he left open the cages and fences at his 73-acre preserve, dooming the animals he seemed to love so much.
Thompson, 62, had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors. Lutz said that the sheriff’s office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping onto neighbors’ property. The sheriff’s office also said that Thompson had been charged over the years with animal cruelty, animal neglect and allowing animals to roam.
He had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.
John Ellenberger, a neighbor, speculated that Thompson freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police. “Nobody much cared for him,” Ellenberger said.
Angie McElfresh, who lives in an apartment near the farm and hunkered down with her family in fear, said “it could have been an ‘f-you’ to everybody around him.”
Thompson had rescued some of the animals at his preserve and purchased many others, said Columbus Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters.
It was not immediately clear how Thompson managed to support the preserve and for what purpose it was operated, since it was not open to the public. But Thompson had appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” in 2008 as an animal handler for a zoologist guest, said show spokeswoman Lauren Nowell.
Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. At least nine people have been injured since 2005 and one person was killed, according to Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group.
On Wednesday, the Humane Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April. The organization urged the state to immediately issue emergency restrictions.
“How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals?” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO, said in a statement.