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Image: Slain animals.
AP
Carcasses lie on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm on Wednesday in Zanesville, Ohio. Sheriff's deputies shot 48 animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions, after Terry Thompson, owner of the private farm, threw their cages open Tuesday and then committed suicide.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 10/20/2011 3:59:49 PM ET 2011-10-20T19:59:49

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 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 IRS and $12,000 in property taxes to the county. He also had two federal tax liens filed against him last year around the same he was sentenced to a year prison for possessing unregistered guns. Thompson got out of prison just last month.

Overall, authorities say Thompson released more than 50 animals from the Muskingum County Animal Farm before killing himself. Dozens of escaped tigers, lions and other beasts were shot by officers.

Just six animals — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured alive.

Image:
Grahm Jones  /  Columbus Zoo and Aquarium via AP
One of three leopards that were captured by authorities on Wednesday, a day after their owner released dozens of wild animals and then killed himself near Zanesville, Ohio.

The last animal that had been unaccounted for, a monkey infected with herpes B virus, was believed to have been eaten by one of the large cats, Lutz told NBC station WCMH.

The survivors were taken to Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The zoo is appealing for donations to help look after them.

On its website, the zoo thanked people for their concern about the animals.

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"Your donation will assist in defraying costs for the relocation, care and rehabilitation of the released animals in our care," the statement said.

Video: Ohio escape renews calls for exotic pet ban (on this page)

WBNS-TV, citing zoo officials, reported that it had received call of support from across the country.

The animals were to be evaluated by veterinarian staff, the station said.

'Tragedy'
The dead animals included 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions. Six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon, a wolf and three mountain lions were also killed. Authorities said the slain animals would be buried on Thompson's farm.

Thompson 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," Hatfield said.

Karen Minton, Ohio state director for the The Humane Society of the United States, told msnbc.com that the sheriff's deputies who shot the animals had had a difficult call to make, but added, "We think they did their job."

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

"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," she added.

Video: Hanna: 'A wild animal is like a loaded gun'

Photos showing the remains of tigers, bears and lions lined up and scattered in a field went viral provoking visceral reactions among viewers, some of whom expressed their anger and sadness on social networking sites.

Will Travers, chief executive of the California-based Born Free USA animal welfare and wildlife conservation organization, said police had no choice but to take the action they did.

"It's a tragedy for these particular animals, for no fault of their own they've been shot, and I can see how difficult that decision was for the police," he said.

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.

Sheriff Lutz said at about 8 p.m. Wednesday that they were confident all the escaped animals had been accounted for, NBC4i.com reported.

"We're convinced that we do not have any animals running at large. [The monkey] was in an area where one of the cats actually killed one of the monkeys and we feel he could have been eaten by one of the cats," he said, according to the station.

NBC4i.com said that Columbus zoo had reached out to other zoos for possible placement. It reported the animals would be held in quarantine before being brought into the zoo itself.

Dead owner's wife owns animals
However, it said the animals still belong to the wife of owner Thompson.

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," Lutz said. "She probably spent more time with these animals than some parents do spend with their kids."

Lutz said they're not trying to take away the animals from Thompson's wife, NBC4i.com said. She was part of the decision and she would work with the zoo on visiting the rescued animals.

NBC4i.com said the zoo had called in extra security after reports of death threats from people who are pro-animal rights.

Story: Ohio escape renews call for exotic-animal crackdown

The Humane Society of the United States criticized Gov. John Kasich for allowing a statewide ban on the buying and selling of exotic pets to expire in April and called for an emergency rule to crack down on exotic animals until the state comes up with a permanent legal solution.

"Every month brings a new, bizarre, almost surreal incident involving privately-held, dangerous wild animals," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society, said in a statement. "In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries. ... Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it's time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end."

Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also called for emergency regulations and pointed the finger at Gov. John Kasich, saying the incident should serve as his "wake-up call."

"Surely, after this latest incident, enough blood has been shed for the state to take action," the group said in a statement.

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

This article contains reporting from The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff.

Video: Surviving Zanesville animals taken to zoo

  1. Transcript of: Surviving Zanesville animals taken to zoo

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to that sad story out of Ohio where tonight authorities have buried 49 dead exotic animals, and the few that survived are being taken care of at the Columbus Zoo . All of them were released by an eccentric criminal who then killed himself. An update tonight from NBC 's Stephanie Gosk .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: In less than a day, Terry Thompson 's sprawling private zoo was all but wiped

    out. These are the survivors: three cheetahs, two monkeys and a bear, brought to the Columbus Zoo where Harry Peachy takes care of the big cats .

    Mr. HARRY PEACHY: This is not an animal you can just bring down to the vet.

    GOSK: Thompson had 18 tigers and 17 lions in Zanesville . This zoo, one of the largest in the country, has just three tigers and four lions. Each one costs about $17,000 a year to care for. This is a good example of the kind of care that big cats get at a zoo. It is a cold, rainy day in Ohio and these two have the right idea. They are relaxing comfortably in a heated cave. But Ohio has some of the weakest regulations for privately owned exotic pets in the country. And since 2003 , the Humane Society has documented 22 incidents involving these animals. Everything from pet escapes to attacks on humans. Mr. WAYNE PACELLE ( The Humane Society of the United States , President and CEO): Ohio has an enormous number incidents relative to states that have strong policies to forbid keeping dangerous wild animals as pets.

    GOSK: Tougher regulations may be a possible solution, but it took a painful lesson in Zanesville to get people talking. Stephanie Gosk, NBC News, Columbus .

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