Veterinarian recounts Zanesville's tragic killing of 49 exotic, wild animals


Veterinarian recounts Zanesville's tragic killing of 49 exotic, wild animals

Ohio authorities strengthen exotic ownership laws; AVMA calls on seven other states to follow suit
Dec 01, 2011

ZANESVILLE, OHIO — "One of the captains ... said to me, 'We all knew this was going to end badly, we just didn't know how badly it would (end).' "

That somber message was delivered by veterinarian Barbara Wolfe of The Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, who ultimately oversaw law enforcement's killing of 49 exotic and dangerous wild animals after they were let loose by an owner who then fatally shot himself.

On Oct. 18, Terry Thompson, a convicted felon in Zanesville, released 56 of the wild and exotic animals he kept on his 46-acre preserve located about 50 miles east of Columbus before committing suicide. The event triggered a full-scale effort by law enforcement, veterinarians and Columbus Zoo's Director Emeritus Jack Hanna to contain the animals. Simultaneously, there was an outcry from veterinary and humane groups to strengthen Ohio's exotic animal ownership laws. New legislation is already in progress as a result of the Zanesville incident.

But before that would happen, 49 of the animals—including 17 lions and 18 rare Bengal tigers—were ultimately killed by authorities who, with the help of veterinarians from the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds, determined that trying to tranquilize the animals would be too dangerous.

Wolfe says her team at The Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation center in Cumberland, Ohio, has been working with the Muskingham County Sheriff's Office for several years trying to find ways to remove the animals from "deplorable" conditions at Thompson's property.

"The conditions were not suitable but there were not strict enough laws in Ohio to bring an animal cruelty charge against them," Wolfe says.

Since the property owner provided the animals food and water and kept them caged, Wolfe says, there was little law enforcement could do to intervene prior to Oct. 18. Wolfe credits the local sheriff's office with containing the situation, calling them "heroes" and adding it wasn't an easy situation for anyone.

"There was absolutely no way we could contain 56 large cats," she says.

Only a 4-ft.-tall wire livestock fence surrounded Thompson's property, adds Muskingham County Sheriff Matt Lutz.

"We had officers on foot by the pens, trying to close the pens up. One time, a cat stuck his head out from fenced area that was cut and came out of the cage at the guys," Lutz says. "There were times it was pretty dangerous. ... They just weren't contained enough to able to dart them."

Lutz says officers were called to the compound at 5 p.m. by neighbors who saw a lion, tiger and bear chasing Thompson's herd of horses.