- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Homeowners took cover indoors Wednesday as sheriff’s deputies with high-powered rifles hunted down and killed dozens of lions, bears, tigers and other exotic beasts that escaped from a wild-animal park after the owner threw their cages open and committed suicide.

After an all-night hunt that extended into the afternoon, nearly all of the 50 or so escaped animals had been either gunned down or captured alive, authorities said. As of midafternoon, the only animals still on the loose were a wolf and a monkey, according to the sheriff’s office.

As the big-game hunt went on, schools closed in the mostly rural area of widely spaced homes 55 miles east of Columbus. Parents were warned to keep children and pets indoors. Flashing signs along highways told motorists, “Caution exotic animals” and “Stay in vehicle.”

“It’s like Noah’s ark, like, wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio,” said Jack Hanna, a TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo. “Noah’s ark filled with tigers and lions and all leopards and a few monkeys and whatever, and it crashes here, and all of a sudden they’re out there.”

Officers were under orders to shoot to kill for fear that animals hit with tranquilizer darts would run off and hide in the darkness.

A dead lion lies by the fence on Terry Thompson's wild-animal preserve near Zanesville, Ohio, on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Heather Ellers and Dustin Burton)
A dead lion lies by the fence on Terry Thompson’s wild-animal preserve ... more >

The owner of the privately run Muskingum County Animal Farm, Terry Thompson, left the cages open and the fences unsecured before committing suicide, Sheriff Matt Lutz said. Authorities would not say how he killed himself, and Sheriff Lutz wouldn’t speculate on why he did it or why he went out with what appeared to be one last act of vengeance.

But Mr. Thompson had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors, and Sheriff Lutz said his office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping from the property. Mr. Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.

“This is a bad situation,” the sheriff said. “It’s been a situation for a long time.”

John Ellenberger, a neighbor of Mr. Thompson‘s, speculated he freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police.

“Nobody much cared for him,” Mr. Ellenberger said.

Neighbor Danielle White, whose father’s property abuts the 40-acre animal park, said she didn’t see loose animals this time but did in 2006, when a lion escaped.

“It’s always been a fear of mine knowing (the owner) had all those animals,” she said. “I have kids. I’ve heard a male lion roar all night.”

The sheriff said his office started getting calls Tuesday evening that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70. He said deputies with rifles went to the animal preserve, where they found Mr. Thompson dead and all the cages open. Several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot, the sheriff said.

Sheriff Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres. Nearby Zanesville has a population of about 25,000.

Mr. Hanna defended the sheriff against criticism that the animals should have been captured alive.

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