A stuffed animal with a sympathy card attached hangs from the locked gate at the Muskingum County Animal Farm Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio. The owner of a U.S. exotic animal farm who released dozens of tigers, lions and others beasts from their cages in a final act shot himself to death and then was bitten by one of his own animals, a sheriff said Thursday. An autopsy showed Terry Thompson had a bite wound on his head that appeared to have come from a large cat, such as a Bengal tiger, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told a news conference. (AP Photo/Mike Munden)
ZANESVILLE, Ohio (AP) — An owner of dozens of wild animals who freed them before committing suicide this week was an avid gun collector who had traded weapons for a monkey, a leopard and a tiger cub, federal documents show.
Terry Thompson built his collection of exotic animals by swapping guns, sheltering animals no longer wanted by their owners and buying others at auctions, according to public records released Friday and interviews with those who knew him.
“Once you have an exotic animal, you’re somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that’s how it grew,” Thompson said, according to a deposition that was part of the government’s attempt to seize 133 weapons from him.
No one knows for sure why Thompson freed 56 animals including lions, tigers and bears on Tuesday and then committed suicide, triggering a big-game hunt in the Ohio countryside as police officers shot and killed 48 of them for fear they would harm humans. A 49th animal was killed by one of the big cats. The remaining animals were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo.
The frightening situation put a spotlight on the lack of oversight on exotic pets in some states. Ohio has some of the nation’s weakest restrictions. Gov. John Kasich on Friday ordered temporary measures to crack down on private ownership of exotic wild animals while tougher laws are drafted this fall.
Under his executive order, the state will work with health departments and humane societies to better enforce existing laws, try to temporarily halt auction sales of wild animals, shut down unlicensed auctions, and review existing permits the state issues to people who own wild animals.
Kasich had let an order that banned buying and selling exotic animals expire last spring. Friday, he defended that decision, saying the legislative process was in the works to address the issue. He said a committee now has put drafting new laws on a fast track for the end of next month.
Thompson likely would have been in violation of the previous order because he had animal cruelty convictions in the past, but it’s unclear if or when he would have lost his animals.
“All the statutes in the world don’t keep something like what happened from happening,” Kasich said. “I mean, who would have ever dreamt the guy’s gonna commit suicide, open up the cages? The question is why did he have all those animals to begin with.”
Deputies killed 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears in a hunt across eastern Ohio that has been criticized by some who say the animals should have been saved. The 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 before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
Over the years, neighbors complained about a lion running loose and regularly called the sheriff about Thompson’s horses roaming away from the property where the wild animals were kept.
Thompson, 62, had his share of troubles in the last year. He owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, had marital problems and just returned home only a few weeks ago after spending a year in federal prison for possessing unregistered weapons.
A week before Thompson killed himself, a sheriff’s deputy visited his farm because a neighbor complained about his horses getting out again.
Thompson promised he’d check the fences and admitted he was struggling to take care of all the animals, authorities said.
“Terry stated to me that he had just recently got home out of prison and he has not had very good control over any of his animals since he had been locked up,” the deputy wrote in a report released Friday.
Thompson’s estranged sister said he likely was overwhelmed financially when he committed suicide.
“I can just see him standing on that hill looking at every animal, thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?'” Polly Thompson told The Associated Press. “And I’m sure he thought, ‘Nobody wants me.'”
Terry Thompson got by financially on proceeds from a motorcycle business he sold, sales of horse trailers and other equipment and a small family inheritance. He also was a pilot who occasionally flew chartered planes for businesses.
Polly Thompson reluctantly testified against her brother about five years ago when he was charged with starving bison and cattle kept at their parents’ farm near Zanesville.
“Anybody that has animals should take care of them,” she said in an interview at her home on the outskirts of Zanesville.
Terry Thompson was a gun dealer in Zanesville for many years but told federal authorities he never hunted, according to court records. “Absolutely unequivocally not a hunter,” he said.
His wife, Marian Thompson, told investigators that they never sold the animals or opened the farm to visitors.
“We don’t want them on display,” she said.
She told detectives in the past that they took in the animals because no one else wanted them. She also said she was trying to end the practice.
“I’m going to put a stop to bringing in all these animals. I’m telling Terry, ‘No more,'” she said in a report filed in April 2005.
Authorities and animal experts went to the farm three years ago during a cruelty to animals investigation and found that some of the cages weren’t padlocked and a few were secured with plastic ties that had been partially chewed, according to the records released by the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office.
The director of animal management from a wildlife preserve in Ohio said the bottoms of fences weren’t secured and gates meant for dog kennels were used in pens housing the big cats. He also noted that a cage housing two lions should have had a much higher fence.
“There was also a tree in this cage area, and there was nothing to prevent the animal from climbing the tree and escaping,” a report said.
Animal pens were scattered on the patio and driveway of the Thompsons’ home on the property, and there were several others inside the garage and basement. They had a black leopard in the basement and two tigers and two lion cubs in the garage.
On a patio next to the Thompsons’ pool, two lion cubs and one black bear cub were in the same pen.
A veterinarian from Columbus Zoo saw that a tiger was missing its tail and thought it had been ripped or bitten off by another animal in an adjoining cage. Two tigers were in a cage filled with standing water, rotting carcasses and lots of bones.
The zoo officials also expressed concerns about malnutrition and the sizes of the pens.
Thompson also kept a monkey in a cage too small for it to stand up in, kept a wolf in an old car and had a zebra in a horse trailer, said a Muskingum County resident familiar with Thompson who saw the conditions and spoke with the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions over the comments.
Authorities decided not to take the Thompsons’ animals because there were no serious health problems but told the couple to fix the cages or they would get a court order forcing the changes.
Within three weeks, taller fences had been constructed. A county prosecutor then told detectives there was little else they could do because they had no authority to regulate anyone who keeps wild or exotic animals.
Even after the changes, detectives wrote in their final report that “it is impossible for the sheriff’s office to say the Thompson property is safe.”
Seewer reported from Toledo. Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman and Ann Sanner in Columbus also contributed to this report.