ZANESVILLE, Ohio -- Sheriff's deputies shot nearly 50 wild animals -- including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions -- in a big-game hunt across the Ohio countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw their cages open and committed suicide in what appeared to be one last act of spite against his neighbors and police.
As homeowners nervously hid indoors, officers equipped with high-powered rifles and shoot-to-kill orders spread out through fields and woods to hunt down about 56 animals that had been set loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm by its owner, Terry Thompson, before he shot himself to death Tuesday.
After an all-night hunt that extended into Wednesday afternoon, 48 animals had been killed and six captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo, authorities said. The only animals believed still on the loose were a wolf and a monkey.
Those destroyed included six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon and three mountain lions.
Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo, defended the sheriff's decision to kill the animals, but said the deaths of the Bengal tigers were especially tragic. There are only about 1,400 of the endangered cats left in the world, he said.
"When I heard 18 I was still in disbelief," Hanna said. "The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is."
As the hunt dragged on outside of Zanesville, population 25,000, schools closed in the mostly rural area of farms and 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."
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 and regain consciousness.
"These animals were on the move, they were showing aggressive behavior," Sheriff Matt Lutz said. "Once the nightfall hit, our biggest concern was having these animals roaming."
Lutz said at an afternoon news conference that the danger had passed and that people could move around freely again, but that the monkey would probably be shot because it was believed to be carrying a herpes disease.
The sheriff would not speculate why Thompson killed himself and why he left open the cages and fences at his 73-acre preserve, dooming the animals he seemed to love so much.
But Thompson, 62, had had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors. Lutz said that the sheriff's office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping onto neighbors' property, and that Thompson had been charged with animal-related offenses.
John Ellenberger, a neighbor, speculated that Thompson freed the animals to get back at neighbors and police. "Nobody much cared for him," Ellenberger said.
Angie McElfresh, who lives in an apartment near the farm and holed up with her family in fear, said "it could have been an 'f-you' to everybody around him."
Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.