Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hunt on for escaped lions, tigers in Ohio

  • Graphic: Escaped animals in Ohio 

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Dozens of large exotic animals including tigers, lions and bears were hunted down and shot after their owner opened their cages at his Ohio farm and then committed suicide, officials said on Wednesday.

The dangerous animals roamed off the property and one went as far as an interstate highway after being let loose shortly before dark on Tuesday. Authorities shut down schools and warned residents to stay indoors as they rounded up the dangerous animals near Zanesville in eastern Ohio.

"We are not talking about your normal every day house cat or dog. These are 300-pound Bengal tigers that we had to put down," said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz. "I gave the order ... that if animals looked like they were on their way out, they were put down."

Lutz said about 44 of the animals were accounted for and six large animals were on the loose, he said.

The farm was owned by Terry Thompson and authorities said they had received about 35 calls over the past seven years about the farm. Complaints ranged from animals running loose to not being treated properly, Lutz said.

"We've handled numerous complaints here, we've done numerous inspections here," he said at a news conference. "So this has been a huge problem for us for a number of years."

Lutz said 48 to 51 animals had been kept at the farm, including wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and many types of "big cats" such as cheetahs, mountain lions and leopards, in addition to lions and tigers.

The sheriff said they tried to shoot some of the animals with tranquilizer guns but encountered problems and had to kill at least one of them.

"We just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger that must've weighed 300 pounds that was very aggressive," Lutz said. "We got a tranquilizer in it and this thing just went crazy."

One bear attacked a law enforcement officer, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, told ABC News earlier.

Thompson was found dead on the ground when authorities went to the farm Tuesday following reports of animals running free.

"I got a call from our safety director ... and he told me that Terry Thompson, the owner of the farm and owner of the animals, had set them free and then shot himself," Mayor Howard Zwelling told CNN.

Earlier, Lutz, who had issued a shoot-to-kill order overnight, said daylight would allow his force to tranquilize animals for capture instead.

Lutz described the animals found as "mature, very big and aggressive."

Police work focused on securing the area around the farm, near Interstate 70 about a mile west of the city limits of Zanesville, and making sure the animals were taken care of.

Lutz said authorities were searching for the animals from their vehicles and were not walking through the rugged, heavily wooded area. He said his office also was relying on neighbors and citizens to report any animals they see.

(Reporting by Jim Leckrone; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott)