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Police Hunt for Lions, Bears & Cheetahs After Mass Escape From an Ohio Farm

• Mayor: "Owner had turned them loose and had shot himself” • Dozens of animals already killed • Schools close • Jack Hanna is on scene --

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (The Blaze/AP) -- Schools closed and motorists were warned to stay in their vehicles as officers with assault rifles patrolled a rural area in eastern Ohio Wednesday, a day after police killed dozens of escaped animals from a wild-animal preserve, where the owner was found dead.

As authorities warned that more animals still were on the loose, three school districts in the region and some private and special schools canceled classes as the remaining bears, big cats and other beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm were hunted down.

Flashing signs along area highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."

Authorities wouldn't say how the farm's owner Terry Thompson died, but said it wasn't suspicious.* However, several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot. Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in his home, but those were still in their cages.

The bizarre situation unfolded due to the fact that the animals' cages had been opened and the farm's fences had been left unsecured, police said. A sheriff says new, overnight animal sightings have not been confirmed in rural eastern Ohio, where police have killed dozens of the escaped animals.

Muskingum County Sheriff Sheriff Matt Lutz (lootz) told ABC's "Good Morning America" before dawn on Wednesday that he believed up to 35 of the 48 animals were accounted for. He says daylight will allow officers to get a more accurate count.

"These are wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa," Lutz said at a press conference. He told residents to stay indoors and sent updates to them via Twitter. There were no reports of injuries to the public. Here are some of the most recent tweets:

The preserve had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Police said bears and wolves were among the escaped animals that were killed and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.

Lutz called the animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.

Tuesday night, more than 50 law enforcement officials - including sheriff's deputies, highway patrol officers, police officers and officers from the state Division of Wildlife - patrolled the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars and trucks, often in rainy downpours. Lutz said they were concerned about big cats and bears hiding in the dark and in trees.

Neighbor Danielle White, whose father's property abuts the animal preserve, 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 preserve's owner) had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a male lion roar all night."

"This is a bad situation," Lutz said. "It's been a situation for a long time."

Lutz said his office started getting phone calls at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70.

He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the animal farm, where they found the owner Thompson dead and all the animal cage doors open.

The deputies, who saw many other animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them on sight.

Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals.

Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the rural area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres.

White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson had been in legal trouble, and police said he had gotten out of jail recently.

"He was in hot water because of the animals, because of permits, and (the animals) escaping all the time," White said. A few weeks ago, she said, she had to avoid some camels which were grazing on the side of a freeway.

At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser remembered Thompson as an interesting character who flew planes, raced boats and owned a custom motorcycle shop that also sold guns.

"He was pretty unique," Weiser said. "He had a different slant on things. I never knew him to hurt anybody, and he took good care of the animals."

Weiser said he regretted that the escaped animals had to be killed. "It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals," he said.

Bailey Hartman, 20, a night manager at McDonalds, also said it saddened her that the animals were being shot. But, she said, "I was kind of scared coming in to work."

Hartman said Thompson's wife, who no longer lives with him, was her teacher in middle school and used to bring small animals such as a monkeys, snakes and owls to school. "It was a once-a-year type of thing, and everyone would always get excited," she recalled.

This morning, famed zookeeper Jack Hanna appeared on Fox News' "Fox & Friends," where he gave advice and discussed the situation. Hanna was live at the scene in Ohio:

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.

*UPDATE:

CBS News is now reporting that the local mayor is saying he was told the animals' owner shot himself and then let them loose:

According to Zanesville Mayor Howard Zwelling, the owner is believed to have taken his own life. However, before he died, he let all the animals loose.

“I did get a call from my safety director and he told me that the owner had turned them loose and had shot himself,” Mayor Zwelling said.

One last thing…
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