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Wild Animals Loose In Zanesville, Ohio; Owner Found Dead As Armed Police Hunt, Kill Escapees (VIDEO)

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ANIMALS
Police were forced to kill dozen of animals in Zanesville, Ohio after the owner of a wildlife preserve set the lions, bears and other dangerous animals free. (AP) | AP

ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Sheriff's deputies shot nearly 50 lions, tigers and other beasts in a big-game hunt across the Ohio countryside Wednesday after the owner of a wild-animal park threw their cages open and committed suicide in what may have been one last act of vengeance against neighbors and police.

As homeowners nervously took cover indoors, officers spread out through fields and woods to hunt down about 56 animals, including bears, wolves and monkeys.

After an all-night hunt that extended into the afternoon, 48 animals had been gunned down and six captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo, authorities said. As of midafternoon, the only animals still on the loose were a wolf and a monkey, according to the sheriff's office.

Schools closed in the mostly rural area of widely spaced homes 55 miles east of Columbus. Parents were warned to keep children and pets indoors. And flashing signs along highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said at an afternoon news conference that the danger had passed and they could reopen. The animals killed included 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, eight bears and a wolf, he said.

The only animals not found were a wolf and a monkey. Authorities said the monkey should be shot if caught because it could be carrying a disease.

The owner of the privately run Muskingum County Animal Farm, Terry Thompson, left the cages open and the fences unsecured before committing suicide, Lutz said earlier.

Authorities would not say how he killed himself, and Lutz wouldn't speculate on why he did it or why he went out with what appeared to be one last act of vengeance.

But Thompson had had repeated run-ins with the law, and Lutz said the sheriff's office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping from the property. Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.

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

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"It's always been a fear of mine knowing (the owner) had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a male lion roar all night."

Officers in the mostly rural area about 55 miles east of Columbus were under orders to shoot to kill for fear that animals hit with tranquilizer darts would run off and hide in the darkness.

SLIDESHOW: Animals escape, hunted down (Story continues below)

Wild Animals Let Loose
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The sheriff said his office started getting calls Tuesday evening that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70. He said deputies with rifles went to the animal preserve, where they found Thompson dead and all the cages open. Several aggressive animals were near his body and had to be shot, the sheriff said.

Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres. Nearby Zanesville has a population of about 25,000.

Hanna defended the sheriff against criticism that the animals should have been captured alive.

"What was he to do at nighttime with tigers and lions, leopards, going out there?" Hanna said. "In the wild this would be a different situation."

Hanna told ABC's "Good Morning America" that if an officer shot a bear, a leopard or a tiger with a tranquilizer at night, "the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have his officer in danger of losing their life, and other people."

The preserve in Zanesville had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Lutz called the animals very big and aggressive but said a caretaker told authorities they had been fed on Monday.

White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson had repeatedly been in legal trouble.

"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 that were grazing on the side of a freeway.

At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said: "It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals."

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

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. In 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland.

On Wednesday, 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. The organization urged the state to immediately issue emergency restrictions.

"How many incidents must we catalog before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals?" Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO, said in a statement.

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Associated Press writers Ann Sanner, Julie Carr Smyth and Doug Whiteman contributed to this report.


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