Years before Tiger King alarmed viewers and mainstream media by showing the ease with which an unhinged person could obtain dangerous wild animals, people in and around Zanesville, Ohio lived the unfortunate, brutal repercussions of bad owners collecting exotic pets. The chaos in Ohio caused widespread panic and death as over 50 wild animals including wolves, bears, tigers, and lions were set loose by a private owner.
We’re going to take a look at how this situation started, the night of terror that followed in 2011, and the lessons learned from this situation.
Lax Animal Ownership Laws Brew Catastrophe
The laws against owning exotic pets like lions, tigers, and wolves weren’t enacted until 2012. However, they didn’t have a full effect until 2014, well after this horrible incident happened. However, it wasn’t illegal to own lions, bears, tigers, monkeys, and venomous snakes before this happened.
The lack of laws in Ohio set the stage for the horrible night to occur. However, it was no accident that these animals were turned loose. Their owner, Terry Thompson, had a large collection of exotic animals on his 73-acre farm. He also had many personal problems including personal debt, a broken marriage, and a criminal record.
Thompson was known to experts at the Columbus Zoo. After all, they had been asked to visit Thompson’s property in 2008 after he was raided by the ATF. These same experts would be called upon to help contain and capture the animals once Thompson set them loose.
The Onset of a Night of Chaos in Ohio
On the night of October 18, 2011, Terry Thompson had only been out of prison for about three weeks after serving time on gun charges. At some point, Thompson heard a rumor that his wife had been unfaithful to him, which apparently set him off.
Thompson decided to release 50 of his exotic creatures including 18 tigers, 17 lions, 3 cougars, 2 wolves, 8 bears, a baboon, and a macaque. Afterward, he committed suicide by shooting himself. He had cut open the animals’ cages, rendering them useless at containing them should someone try.
One of Thompson’s neighbors encountered a lion and a bear on his property. A measly fence separated the two lands, and it had been breached. The man called his mother who then called the police. Sheriff Matt Lutz received the first call around 5:20 p.m. Although it was not unusual for a horse to escape from Thompson’s property, the calls streaming into emergency services made it clear that other animals were loose.
Lutz immediately ordered that any animals found off the property were to be shot. Dusk was quickly approaching and having those deadly ambush predators loose in the dark would be incredibly dangerous. Too many public places were nearby, and some of them were hosting crowded events. If any of the grizzly bears, lions, or tigers made their way into those venues, the people would be in incredible danger.
The officers sent out warnings and used roadway signs to show that exotic animals were loose. Then, they went about the harrowing task of mopping up the chaos unleashed in Zanesville, Ohio.
Heroic Cops and Hand-to-Hand Fighting
The officers that responded to the situation decided that the best approach would be to load into vehicles and hunt down as many animals as possible on the property. They armed themselves with assault rifles, bolt-action rifles, and other weapons from their SWAT armory. Given the large number of animals and the danger they posed, tranquilizing them was not an option.
Fortunately, the property containing the most dangerous animals was surrounded by a fence. So, it became the duty of the deputies to cull them within those boundaries to prevent them from escaping.
They had a close encounter at one barn where two tigers sauntered outside coming within less than 20 feet of the officers. The officers fired at the animals and started to take them out a few at a time.
Officers found Thompson’s corpse being guarded by a white tiger within the first hour of arrival. Before they could take action, the officers had to head to the south part of the property where someone had spotted a lion.
Thompson set loose roughly 56 animals before he killed himself. Among them were some of the deadliest mammals on the planet.
Throughout the entire night, the police officers killed 50 animals. They found a few of the animals, but one monkey was lost. Most reports say that it was probably eaten by one of the big cats. A few of the animals were safely relocated to other facilities.
By the time the sun rose the next day, the mayhem had ended. The officers laid out all the bodies in one area, showing off the true scope of the carnage from the night before. Officers shot all the bears, tigers, lions, and all the other animals to death, using so much ammunition that they had to call in for more.
Lessons Learned from the Chaos in Ohio
That horrible night in Zanesville taught the people of Ohio a valuable lesson: untrained, unregulated, unprepared people should not be allowed to own exotic animals. In this case, Terry Thompson should have never had access to lions, tigers, and bears. He was not properly trained and did not have the staff required to care for the creatures.
Also, when people go through official channels, they need to register every animal and have that record accessible by authorities. That way, during such emergencies, officers have the information required to account for every animal.
More importantly, first responders in this situation need access to the proper tools. In this case, they had few proper weapons and even ran out of ammunition at one point.
All told, the horrible event in Ohio left 50 animals dead. Moreover, the public learned that new laws had to be made to protect people from wayward animals. Fortunately, this case resulted in no loss of human life, but many animals had to be killed.
The Featured Image
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- Ohio.gov, Available here: https://codes.ohio.gov/ohio-revised-code/chapter-935
- Cincinnati.com, Available here: https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2021/04/08/ohio-exotic-animal-law-monkeys-cincinnati/7137246002/
- GQ, Available here: https://www.gq.com/story/terry-thompson-ohio-zoo-massacre-chris-heath-gq-february-2012
- Oxford Academic, Available here: https://academic.oup.com/ccc/article-abstract/13/4/568/6055083