In the late afternoon hours of Oct. 18, 2011, 62-year-old Terry Thompson opened the cage doors that contained his lions, tigers, bears, wolves and more on his Zanesville farm and set them free. Then he turned a gun on himself.
Reports of wild animals running loose quickly started pouring into Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz’s office. He didn’t know how many animals Thompson kept on the property or how much of a head start they had. But he did know this: Sunset was 90 minutes away.
Lutz quickly gave the order to his deputies: Put down any animal off the property or close to leaving the property.
“There is no way we could have those types of animals loose in our neighborhoods,” Lutz said.
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About 10 deputies from the SWAT team rode in the back of two pickup trucks, while another 10 patrolled the perimeter. Officers killed 49 animals: 18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, one baboon and two wolves.
Almost miraculously, no one — not Lutz’s staff or any member of the community — was harmed.
The bizarre, surreal event made international headlines and cast a bright spotlight on Ohio’s lack of laws covering the private ownership of grizzly bears, boa constrictors, alligators and other exotic animals.
But six years later, Ohio no longer has a reputation as a state with lax animal laws. With the image of lions and bears preying on unsuspecting citizens still fresh in their minds, state officials quickly seized on the Zanesville incident to enact strict regulations on the private ownership of dangerous wild animals and restricted snakes.
As a result of the law signed by Gov. John Kasich on June 5, 2012, owners had to register and micro-chip their animals, and meet strict standards on housing, training, transportation, insurance and enclosures. The law prohibited the acquisition of more animals — except for certain species — and required the surrender or seizure of animals from owners who failed to meet the standards.
“It’s very impressive what they’ve accomplished in Ohio,” said Debbie Leahy of the Humane Society of the United States. “I don’t think we’ve seen a crackdown like that anywhere else in the country.”
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The crackdown, though, was costly.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture spent more than $3 million to build a 20,000-square-foot temporary animal holding facility east of Columbus, and has since spent more than $3.6 million to house, feed, transport and care for the animals housed there.
Since it opened in early 2013, the Reynoldsburg facility has held 207 confiscated or surrendered wild animals, including 107 American alligators, 39 snakes, 18 black bears, 16 tigers, seven brown bears, and five cougars.
Between the building and operating expenses, the program costs work out to be about $7,100 per animal per year.
The building includes 30 large animal enclosures for bears, big cats and others, as well as a snake and reptile room. The agriculture department does not permit tours or photos and is tight-lipped about which animals are held there at any one time and for how long.
“We never give out the exact number or types of animals we have in the facility just for security purposes,” said Dr. Melissa Simmerman, assistant state veterinarian.
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The temporary holding facility is under 24-hour monitoring, according to the department, which takes care to ensure the animals are treated well, including providing each with a species-appropriate diet.
For example, the cats, which are carnivores, are fed a meat-based diet plus vitamins, while the omnivorous bears are given a pellet-based diet along with fresh fruits and nuts. Ohio Ag staff visit local stores a couple of times a week to buy groceries for the bears.
Cage sizes meet the minimum set for private owners of dangerous wild animals, but the animals are not given outdoor exercise areas, Simmerman said. Instead, they’re given “enrichment” activities such as nuts tucked into a log for the bears to root out.
The animals spend anywhere from a few nights to a few months at the facility, depending on how long it takes for the state to find an appropriate animal sanctuary placement.
The law didn’t prohibit private ownership, but those who keep exotic animals on their property must follow the rules.
So far this year, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has issued 45 permits for 163 animals in private hands. That’s down from 64 permits for 218 animals in 2014, the first year the new regulations were in effect. Permit holders are subject to annual inspections that are announced at times and other times not.
“I think it was a needed law. Before this law went into effect Ohio was one of the few states left in the country that had no dangerous wild animal-type regulations. And I think we have come quite a ways since then and I think that’s good — not only for public safety but also for the health and well being and safety of the animals,” said Simmerman, who has been a veterinarian with the state since 2009.
But Mona Kerby of Butler County called the regulations ridiculous and costly to exotic animal owners. Kerby has owned an eight-pound monkey, Bella, for 13 years. Under the new law, insurance costs her $1,350 a year, she must submit to annual home inspections and a criminal background check and mandated visits to the veterinarian, she said.
“I do think there should be restrictions. but they should be reasonable,” Kerby said.
More restrictions sought
Zanesville was the biggest exotic animal incident in Ohio but it wasn’t the first.
In 2009, the Humane Society of the United States blasted Ohio for having some of the weakest exotic pet laws in the nation, saying the state had become a center for breeding and selling wild animals.
In 2003 and 2004, two people were killed by venomous snakes kept as pets in Ohio; in 2006, a 500-pound bear escaped from an animal breeder and attacked a woman; also in 2006, a man was killed by his pet python; and in August 2010, Brent Kanda was mauled to death when he went to feed a bear held captive by exotic animal owner Sam Mazzola.
“There have been many situations where these animals have gotten loose or have done damage to neighbors or to the owners of these animals,” Simmerman said. “I think the magnitude of what happened in Zanesville is why it really sticks out in everyone’s mind.”
Leahy, the humane society spokeswoman, lauded Ohio’s law but also said it could be made even tougher. The regulations, she said, don’t cover snakes shorter than 12 feet or small primates, such as spider monkeys.
“An 8-foot constrictor snake is capable of killing an adult human,” Leahy said.
‘I still miss him’
Terry Thompson, an Eagle Scout and a Vietnam veteran, lived on the edge: he raced boats and cars, sold guns and motorcycles, collected wild animals and held a private pilot license.
Gary Brock, a lifelong friend who grew up next door to Thompson, said Thompson flew his plane underneath Zanesville’s famous Y-bridge more than once.
“Among his true friends, he is still just Terry. He’s one of the smartest, most athletic guys and one of the guys who is always on the edge,” Brock said. “There was never a dull moment when you saw Terry…I still miss him.”
Brock to this day questions the official account of what happened, believing instead that it could have been a covered-up murder committed by Thompson’s enemies. Thompson was sentenced to one year and one day in prison on two federal gun charges in October 2010, and had been back in Zanesville only a couple of weeks before his Oct. 18, 2011, death.
Brock wishes Thompson would have been allowed to connect with old friends after returning from prison. Thompson returned to Zanesville to find a sizable delinquent property tax bill, his wife had moved out and he was confined to the farm by an electronic monitor, Brock said.
If it was suicide, Brock thinks it could have been avoided.
“He got out and he just went into isolation really quick. He hadn’t been out but, I think, two weeks. In that period of time, not that many of us saw him,” he said. “If he had been able to maybe function outside of (the farm) to where he would have had contact with his people that he knew and trusted, it might not have happened. Or at least I might have had an idea that something bad was going on in his thoughts. Once again, it never was in his mode: suicide.”