Ohio man who freed exotic pets was deep in debt

Published 4:17 pm Saturday, November 5, 2011

TOLEDO, Ohio — A debt-ridden man distraught over marital problems and deep in debt told one of his farmhands the night before he released a menagerie of African lions, Bengal tigers and other exotic animals that he had a plan and said to the caretaker: “You will know when it happens.”

Terry Thompson threw open the animals’ cages late in the afternoon on Oct. 18 and then committed suicide on his farm near Zanesville in eastern Ohio.

According to reports released Friday, sheriff’s deputies who arrived at Thompson’s private compound had no choice but to shoot the animals crouching between abandoned vehicles and tigers still coming out of their cages. When it was over, 48 animals were dead.

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Nearly all the cages were unlocked and holes had been cut in the metal fencing. A tiger and a black bear were in the same enclosure, but the door was unlocked and open. “As I backed the team up, the tiger came out the door and charged right at us,” said deputy Jay Lawhorne.

Deputies shot the tiger, and the bear, after it ran at other officers. Another deputy said he shot a charging black bear that dropped within 7 feet of him.

The reports released by the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office reveal how deputies suddenly found themselves in the middle of a desperate hunt. They also offer clues to Thompson’s motive.

The 62-year-old told a farmhand that he was upset about his marital problems and that he had a plan, according to a deputy who talked with the caretaker.

Thompson then told the caretaker: “You will know it when it happens.”

He and his wife had devoted their lives to the animals. He bought his first exotic animal, a lion cub named Simba, at an auction for his wife’s birthday about 14 years ago.

Just days before he set the animals free, he told a deputy that he was having a tough time taking care of the animals after spending a year in prison on a gun conviction. He also was deep in debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

The accounts from deputies at the scene show just how close the animals came to attacking some of them. Authorities have defended their decision to shoot and kill the animals, saying they were trying to protect the public.

Deputies said they saw Thompson’s body but couldn’t get near him to determine whether he was alive because a white tiger “appeared to be eating the body,” a report said. Authorities have said that it appeared one of the big cats dragged his body and that there was a bite mark on his head.

Other animals near his body started moving toward a pickup truck where, in the back, four sheriff’s deputies armed with rifles began firing.

With only an hour of daylight left and no tranquilizers on hand, they were in the middle of a desperate hunt and decided that the only option was take down the animals, Lawhorne said.

Their main concern appeared to be making sure none of the animals got near or outside the fences that separated the farm from several neighboring houses and Interstate 70, according to the reports.

Two deputies shot a pair of lions running near a fence along an interstate highway. One lion got up and charged a deputy before he killed it. “One of the African lions that we had shot got up and started running towards us,” a deputy said. “At this point, we opened fire on it again, eventually killing it.”

One deputy said he shot a lion after it busted through a fence and race toward a road. At the same time, he saw other deputies firing at several other lions running through the front yards of neighboring houses.

He then came across a mountain lion that was hissing and showing its teeth.

Once night came, firefighters used thermal-imaging cameras to spot a grizzly bear bounding across a field. Deputies decided to shoot it.

Several of the cages and surrounding fencing had been cut, making it impossible for authorities to secure the animals, the reports said.

One lion came within three feet of an auxiliary deputy who was trying to close the cage doors but didn’t see a hole had been cut in the cage, Lawhorne said.