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 Ohio countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw their cages open and committed suicide in what appeared to be one last act of spite against his neighbors and police.
As homeowners nervously hid indoors, officers equipped with high-powered rifles and shoot-to-kill orders spread out through fields and woods to hunt down about 56 animals that had been set loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm by its owner, Terry Thompson, before he shot himself to death Tuesday.
After an all-night hunt that extended into Wednesday afternoon, 48 animals had been killed and six captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo, authorities said. The only animals believed still on the loose were a wolf and a monkey.
Those destroyed included six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon and three mountain lions.
Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo, 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," Hanna 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 and soon 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."
Lutz said at an afternoon news conference that the danger had passed and that people could move around freely again, but that the monkey would probably be shot because it was believed to be carrying a herpes disease.
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.
But 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, and that Thompson had been charged with animal-related offenses.
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 gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.
"It's like Noah's Ark, like, wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," Hanna lamented.
The sheriff's office started getting calls Tuesday evening that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville. Deputies went to the animal preserve and found Thompson dead and all the cages open. Several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot, the sheriff said.
"It was like a war zone with all the shooting and so forth with the animals," said Sam Kopchak, who was outside Tuesday afternoon when he saw another neighbor's horses acting up. Kopchak said he turned and saw a male lion lying down on the other side of a fence.
"The fence is not going to be a fence that's going to hold an African lion," Kopchak said.
Danielle Berkheimer said she was nervous as she drove home Tuesday night and afraid to let her two dogs out in the yard.
"When it's 300-pound cats, that's scary," she said. She said it had been odd Tuesday night to see no one out around town, and the signs warning drivers to stay in their cars were "surreal."
Some townspeople were saddened by the deaths. At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said: "It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals."
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.
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.
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and Doug Whiteman contributed to this report.