- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2011

ZANESVILLE, Ohio The owner of an exotic animal farm who killed himself after setting his menagerie of tigers, lions, bears and other beasts loose in the Ohio countryside was deep in debt, records show.

Terry Thompson and his wife had money problems dating to the 1990s, but their debt had escalated in recent years and they owed at least $68,000 in unpaid income and property taxes, according to the court records obtained Thursday.

Thompson’s collection of black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, leopards and other exotic creatures was no secret to neighbors or authorities who were called many times over the years about animals wandering away. But their escape this time was no accident.

Thompson, 62, unleashed them from his private Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, then shot himself. Authorities had to hunt down and kill or capture the animals as they roamed the rural area, and only one monkey is unaccounted for.

The man’s body was found near the empty cages with a bite wound on the head that appeared to have come from a large cat, such as a Bengal tiger, county Sheriff Matt Lutz said Thursday. Investigators have refused to speculate on his motive.

Thompson and his wife owed $56,000 in unpaid income taxes to the Internal Revenue Service and $12,000 in property taxes to the county. He also had two federal tax liens filed against him last year around the same time he was sentenced to a year in prison for possessing unregistered guns. Thompson got out of prison just last month.

He had rescued some of the animals at his preserve and bought many others, said Columbus Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters. The couple spent much of their time and money caring for the animals, neighbors said.

Most of the big cats and bears were declawed and had been bottle-fed by Thompson and his wife since the animals were babies, said Judy Hatfield, a family friend who visited the farm many times and said it wasn’t unusual to have a monkey jump on your lap.

“I know how much he cared for them, and he would know that they would be killed,” she said.

The sheriff said that he spoke with Thompson’s wife and that she was distraught over the loss of her husband and the animals.

“You have to understand these animals were like kids to her,” Sheriff Lutz said. “She probably spent more time with these animals than some parents do spend with their kids.”

Sheriff’s deputies shot 48 animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions. Animal rights advocates agreed there was little local authorities could have done to save the dangerous creatures once they began roaming the area.

“What a tragedy,” said veterinarian Barb Wolfe of the Wilds animal preserve sponsored by the Columbus Zoo. “We knew that … there were so many dangerous animals at this place that eventually something bad would happen, but I don’t think anybody really knew it would be this bad.”

Authorities said the slain animals would be buried on Thompson’s farm.

Six animals - 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 possibly still unaccounted for in the mostly rural community of farms, widely spaced homes and wooded areas about 55 miles east of Columbus.

• AP writers Andrew-Welsh Huggins, Ann Sanner, Julie Carr Smyth, JoAnne Viviano and Doug Whiteman contributed to this report.

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