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Image: A dead lion near Zanesville, Ohio
Heather Ellers And Dustin Burton  /  AP
A dead lion lies by the fence on Terry Thompson's farm near Zanesville, Ohio, Tuesday after being killed by sheriff's deputies.
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msnbc.com
updated 10/20/2011 9:54:20 AM ET 2011-10-20T13:54:20

The case of an Ohio man who set loose his collection of wild bears, lions, tigers and other beasts before apparently killing himself has animal-welfare organizations renewing their call for a clampdown on ownership of exotic animals.

“Exotic, dangerous animals simply do not belong in private hands. It’s not worth the risk,” said Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA.

Authorities believe Terry Thompson, owner of a 73-acre exotic-animal farm near rural Zanesville, Ohio, opened the cages to free his collection of animals before shooting himself Tuesday. Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies frantically raced to track down the 50-plus animals that escaped before they could harm anyone.

Deputies fatally shot 49 of the animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers. Six were recaptured.

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The last missing animal, a monkey thought to be carrying a herpes virus, was found to have been eaten by one of the large cats, the sheriff said late Wednesday.

Story: Big-cat owner: 'You form a bond with them'

Thompson, 62, had a criminal record. He was released from federal prison just last month, after serving a one-year term for weapons violations stemming from the discovery of more than 100 guns on his property in 2008, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

He was also convicted in municipal court in 2005 of cruelty to animals, having an animal at large and two counts of rendering animal waste without a license, according to the Dispatch. His preserve was home to a menagerie of lions, tigers, bears, wolves, giraffes, monkeys and other animals, many bought at auctions.

Video: Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals (on this page)

Animal-welfare groups say Ohio is notoriously lax when it comes to wild-animal ownership. It's one of fewer than 10 states that have no rules regulating the sale and ownership of exotic animals.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said Thompson would have been barred from owning exotic animals had a state emergency rule on keeping dangerous exotics animals been in effect.

An executive order issued by former Gov. Ted Strickland just days before he left office in January prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals. The administration of current Gov. John Kasich allowed the order to expire in April, noting concerns about its enforceability and its impact on small businesses.

Story: Animal advocates defend shootings on Ohio farm

Kasich has convened a stakeholder group to develop standards, but Pacelle said immediate action is needed until the Ohio Department of Natural Resources or the Legislature can adopt a permanent legal solution.

“Every month brings a new, bizarre, almost surreal incident involving privately held dangerous wild animals,” Pacelle said in a statement. “In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions. Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it’s time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end.”

The Humane Society says it has documented 22 "incidents" with dangerous exotic animals in Ohio since 2003, including the widely reported killing last year in Lorain County of a 24-year-old man, Brent Kendra, by a captive black bear he reportedly was feeding.

Animal-welfare activists wanted the bear's owner, Sam Mazzola, charged with reckless homicide, but Kendra's death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later euthanized.

Mazzola was found dead in July, face-down on a water bed and restrained with handcuffs and chains, in his Columbia Station home. Authorities said he apparently choked on a sex toy.

Born Free says it has tracked more than 1,598 reported attacks and incidents since 1990 across the United States, including 86 in Ohio. The most recent incident prior to this week was on Sept. 22, when an 80-year-old man was injured after reportedly being attacked by his 6-foot-tall, 200-pound kangaroo at an exotic animal farm near Green Camp.

Laura Jones, director of comminations for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said a stakeholders group hopes to have a wild-animal proposal completed by the end of the year for the state Legislature to consider early next year.

"We’ve been working aggressively on having this proposal in place. I’m sure yesterday’s situation will be uppermost in their (lawmakers') minds as they consider this legislation," Jones told msnbc.com.

Roberts said the mass-escape of wild animals from Thompson's compound is particularly troubling because animal-welfare groups have been trying for years to get Ohio to strengthen its exotic-animal laws. Thompson had been warned about animals wandering off his property.

"The bottom line is, because Ohio like many other states didn’t have necessary laws in place to prevent this kind of exotic animal ownership, it really sets the stage for a potential catastrophic incident," Roberts told msnbc.com.

According to Born Free, Ohio is one of eight states that have no or extremely lax regulations on exotic-animal ownership. Twenty-one states ban private ownership, eight have partial bans and 13 have permitting or licensing regulations, the animal-welfare group says.

"The biggest lesson is, when groups like Born Free and others advocate against keeping of exotic animals as pets and the general reaction is we’re nothing more than Chicken Little going around saying the sky is falling, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Roberts said.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals

  1. Transcript of: Authorities hunt down escaped wild animals

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We begin tonight with a strange and sad story out of Zanesville , Ohio . It started with a local man known as something of an eccentric and a criminal who'd served time in prison. He kept a wild animal preserve on his property, big exotic animals , the kind we see in zoos, until last night when he released the animals and took his own life . Police responding in the dark to protect the families in the area had no choice but to draw their weapons and bring down the animals . Those still on the loose today were tranquilized, taken away. The 48 dead animals include 18 endangered Bengal tigers , and there are only about 2500 in the world. Tonight in Zanesville it's mostly the scene of a terrible waste and a rekindled debate over private rights vs. animal welfare . We have two reports tonight, beginning at the scene with NBC 's John Yang . John , good evening.

    JOHN YANG reporting: Good evening, Brian . It was a tense and terrifying night. Fifty exotic animals roaming the hillsides. Not only those 18 Bengal tigers , but 17 lions. The sheriff said that they were big, mature and aggressive. Sheriff's deputies pursued them with assault weapons. Their orders were simple: Shoot to kill. By the time the sun came up in Zanesville , most of the animals that had escaped from Terry Thompson 's farm were gone.

    Sheriff MATT LUTZ (Muskingum County, Ohio Sheriff): One wolf, six black bears , two grizzly bears , nine male lions, eight lionesses, one baboon, three mountain lions and 18 tigers.

    YANG: It had been a nerve-racking night as local news broadcasts warned residents.

    CABOT REA reporting: Stay inside. There just might be a lion, a tiger or a grizzly roaming in your neighborhood.

    YANG: Thompson , the owner of a 73-acre exotic animal farm, had apparently set most of his animals free and then took his own life . Fred Polk , one of Thompson 's neighbors, saw many of the animals on his property.

    Mr. FRED POLK: I seen some mountain lions and African lions and, I think, three bears. One of the bears charged a deputy and the deputy shot it.

    Sheriff LUTZ: We don't go to the academy and get trained on how to deal with 300-pound Bengal tigers .

    YANG: Danielle White and her two children live right next door. For them it was a terrifying night.

    Ms. DANIELLE WHITE: The gunfire was very close to the house. I almost felt at one point that it may have been right in the backyard.

    Offscreen Voice #1: That is a bear.

    YANG: Today, schools were closed as a precaution amid new questions about the animal's owner. Neighbors and other area residents called Thompson eccentric. Late last month he was released after more than a year in federal prison on gun charges. Six of his animals , including three leopards, have been safely taken to the Columbus Zoo , but scores of others had to be killed to protect a community.

    Mr. JACK HANNA (Columbus Zoo Director Emeritus): Tragedy for the animal world is what it is. It could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world , and that's what we tried to avoid here.

    YANG: Tonight most of the exotic animals have been returned to Terry Thompson 's property and buried there. John Yang , NBC News, Zanesville , Ohio .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: This is Stephanie Gosk . An animal control officer shot a monkey on the loose last week in St. Cloud , Florida . This mountain lion attacked and mauled a four-year-old in Texas earlier this month. Both cases of exotic pets on the loose.

    Mr. JEFF CORWIN (NBC News Wildlife Expert): In the United States today there are thousands of people who keep exotic animals as pets. Globally, the market trade of creatures is a $20-billion-a-year industry.

    GOSK: Buying an exotic animal can be as easy as a click of the mouse. One site has up to 600 for sale. But state laws vary widely on regulating who can own what depending on where they live. According to the Humane Society of the US, 12 states ban the private possession of exotic animals , 28 states have restrictions and 12 states have almost none. Ohio is one of those states.

    Offscreen Voice #2: Damn, you got to be nuts if you want to keep one of these.

    GOSK: A new documentary highlights the sometimes murky business of exotic animal sales.

    Mr. MICHAEL WEBBER ("The Elephant in the Living Room" Director): I went to exotic animal auctions and I had to go undercover, and I actually had to go with bodyguards, too, because they didn't allow cameras in there.

    GOSK: Scott Shoemaker in Nevada is raising 30 animals , including six tigers and a 550-pound African lion . He says he spent more than $100,000 in caging and nine-feet wire fencing for his 10-acre property.

    Mr. SCOTT SHOEMAKER: Some guy lets his out. It's obviously not a caging issue, not a safety issue. The guy obviously had a mental issue. And why would I get lumped in with him? We have taken precautions here in being responsible.

    GOSK: Tonight the pressure is on Ohio Governor John Kasich to change the law. His office has been re-evaluating a proposed ban on exotic pets , Brian , that would have prevented today's incident.

    WILLIAMS: Stephanie Gosk and John Yang starting us off tonight from Zanesville . Thanks to you both.

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