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 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," 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 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."
Sheriff 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 thought to be carrying a herpes disease.
The sheriff would not speculate why Mr. 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 Mr. Thompson, 62, had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors. Sheriff Lutz said that the sheriff's office had gotten numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping onto neighbors' property, and that Mr. Thompson had been charged with animal-related offenses.
John Ellenberger, a neighbor, speculated that Mr. Thompson freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police. "Nobody much cared for him," he said.
Mr. 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," Mr. Hanna lamented.
Some townspeople were saddened by the animal 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.
• AP writers Ann Sanner and Doug Whiteman contributed to this report.