If you live in Ohio I’m sure you remember the surreal and grizzly scene that unfolded on the evening of October 18, 2011. It was on that day that some 56 exotic animals were freed from their enclosures. These beautiful animals had been housed at the farm of a private collector, a man named Terry Thompson. The events that unfolded over the next 24 hours would result in 49 of these exotic animals being killed, 18 tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, one baboon and two wolves. This horrible event happened on this day 7 years ago and is often referred to as The Zanesville Animal Massacre.
The owner of the animals, 62 year old Terry Thompson would commit suicide soon after opening their cage doors. Thompson was a Vietnam War veteran prone to violence and radical anti-government behavior and he had just been released from prison three weeks prior. He was also a lifelong collector of exotic animals, which began in 1977 when Terry bought a tiger cub for his wife, they named him Simba. Fast forward 35 years and Thompson’s collection had grown immensely, his wife had left him and he was in massive debt. Terry Thompson was in over his head.
As these majestic creatures ran from their enclosures it wasn’t long before 911 calls started streaming in. Lions in a parking lot, Bengal tigers roaming the soccer field. A black bear running across the highway. Local law enforcement quickly involved Jack Hanna, former director of the world renowned Columbus Zoo. Initially the zoo was called upon to tranquilize the animals but as dusk turned to the dark of night, Jack Hanna said tranquilizing animals in the dark was just too dangerous. It was at that point that orders were put in place to shoot the animals on sight. In the overnight hours as the menagerie roamed free for the first time in their lives, warnings went out urging people in the Zanesville area to stay indoors. Flashing signs along nearby highways told motorists: “Caution exotic animals” and “Stay in vehicle”. Several local school districts even cancelled classes.
In the midst of the mayhem, four deputies were dispatched to Thompson’s 73-acre ‘Muskingum County Animal Farm’ it was there they found Thompson’s body and the doors to the enclosures wide open. Animals near his body were shot as well, to allow deputies to approach. It was apparent at that time Thompson had succumbed to a gun shot wound, presumably self inflicted. All in all the hunt across the Ohio countryside lasted a full 24 hours. By the next evening, deputies had killed 48 animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears. Keep in mind, Bengal Tigers are critically endangered with only 1400 of the big cats remaining in the wild. Out of all the animals Thompson released that day a mere six animals – three leopards, one grizzly bear and two monkeys – were captured and sent to the nearby Columbus Zoo.
At that time Ohio had some of America’s most lax regulation of keeping exotic animals, as well as some of the country’s highest rates of injuries and deaths caused by them. Immediately after this tragic event, Ohio governor John Kasich called for a temporary moratorium on the sale of exotic animals. And later, formerly lax regulations were given an “about face” when the Ohio General Assembly responded with one of the nation’s toughest laws on private ownership of exotic animals.
Interestingly enough, a documentary that I saw a full one year prior to this horrific event could have literally foretold this tragic story. It offers incredible insight into the seemingly commonplace trend of individuals keeping large, exotic animals as pets and the problems that surround the issue, it’s called “The Elephant in the Living Room” and will undoubtedly shock you with the statistics and stories contained therein.
I will certainly never forget that tragic and heartbreaking day.
Thompson, Kathy Gadd, Brian The Times Recorder, November 18, 2011 Zanesville, Ohio