Ohio police armed with assault rifles Wednesday shot dead dozens of lions, tigers, bears and wolves, after the owner of an exotic farm freed the dangerous animals and then killed himself.
They were still hunting for a lion, a grizzly bear and a monkey which remained on the loose near Zanesville, Ohio.
At least 39 lions, tigers, bears and wolves were killed − and one animal was struck by a vehicle on a nearby highway − as officials fought to keep the beasts away from nearby homes and businesses.
Sheriff Matt Lutz defended his shoot-to-kill order, telling reporters that deputies were in a race against the oncoming darkness when they arrived at the farm around 5:30 pm (2130 GMT) Tuesday and saw the huge beasts running free.
“I had deputies that had to shoot animals with their side arms at close range,” Sheriff Matt Lutz told reporters.
“We are not talking about your normal, everyday house cat or dog. These are 300-pound Bengal tigers we’ve had to put down.”
Game wardens, SWAT teams, and experts from the nearby Columbus zoo were called in to assist with the hunt as darkness fell and residents were warned to stay in their homes.
Attempts were made to capture the animals with tranquilizer darts, but Lutz said public safety remained the top priority.
One “very aggressive” tiger was shot dead after it went “crazy” and started to run towards nearby woods after it was shot with a tranquilizer.
“We could not take a chance that we got the dart in it,” Lutz said. “We could not have animals running loose in this county. We were not going to have that.”
Schools near Zanesville were hurriedly closed Wednesday and parents were warned to keep their children inside while officials continued to hunt for the remaining animals.
“We didn’t want kids standing at a bus stop and seeing these big animals walking by and possibly causing harm,” Lutz said.
Either 48 or 51 animals − including grizzly and black bears, wolves, and several species of large cats, such as lions, tigers and cheetahs − were kept in cages outside the house, while dozens more animals − mainly primates − lived indoors and most had not escaped.
The farm’s owner, 62-year-old Terry Thompson, had been released from federal prison three weeks earlier after serving a one-year term on firearms charges.
Lutz said he was working with Thompson’s estranged wife − who no longer lived on the farm − to work out a final tally on the animals.
Investigators have still not fully secured the farm and Lutz would not offer details on how Thompson died, although he said his body had been “bothered” by the animals.
Local news reports said federal agents raided the farm in June 2008, seizing more than 100 guns, and that Thompson had previously been fined for letting his animals wander.
Lutz said his office had fielded around 35 calls about the farm in the past six years, including reports of animals running loose and being mistreated.
Kate Riley, 20, whose family owns a nearby cattle farm, said the animals’ owner would sometimes come and take their dead cows to feed his lions.
“He’d have claw marks all over him,” she told the Columbus Dispatch newspaper. She added she believed Thompson’s wife had recently left him and moved out.
Jack Hannah, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, was helping to organize the hunt and said the mountain lion was his biggest concern because of its “great leaping ability.”
Grizzlies will usually not hunt humans as prey and will back down if people make a lot of noise and don’t try to run away. And just because they’ve spent their lives in captivity, doesn’t mean they’re tame, he warned.
“You can usually train a wild animal. You can never tame a wild animal,” he said. “The power of these animals is tremendous.”
A monkey was also on the loose, but officials said it did not pose a threat to the public and was a low priority.