Ohio exotic-pet farm barely secured cages

By John Seewer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 1:55 p.m. MDT

In this photo obtained by the Associated Press, carcasses lay on the ground at the Muskingum County Animal Farm Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio. Sheriff's deputies shot 48 animals , including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions, after Terry Thompson, owner of the private Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, threw their cages open Tuesday and then committed suicide. Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and also had a bite wound on the head that appeared to have come from a large cat, such as a Bengal tiger, county Sheriff Matt Lutz said Thursday morning.

HO, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Authorities found numerous problems with conditions at a wild animal owner's property over the years, including big cats kept in cages without locks, a black leopard in a basement, lion and bear cubs housed in the same pen and a lion running loose, according to documents released Friday.

Several neighbors also complained over the years that Terry Thompson's horses regularly got out from the property where the wild animals were kept, and that he and his wife were starving bison and cattle they kept on a farm on the other side of town, the documents show.

Thompson, 62, freed dozens of lions, tigers, bears and other animals Tuesday, then committed suicide, triggering a big-game hunt in the Ohio countryside as police officers shot and killed 49 of the animals for fear they would harm humans.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets, and authorities decided not to take Thompson's animals because there were no serious health problems.

Gov. John Kasich on Friday Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he'll push for a moratorium on exotic animal auctions and a crackdown on unlicensed auctions. He had let an order that banned buying and selling exotic animals expire this spring, arguing it lacked legal authority.

He says he'll propose laws to regulate wild animals by Nov. 30. And he says the state will work toward better application of existing laws until more specific laws are enacted.

Authorities and animal experts went to the Thompson farm three years ago during a cruelty investigation and found that some of the cages weren't padlocked and were secured with plastic ties, according to the records released by the Muskingum County Sheriff's office.

They also thought the fences were low enough to allow the animals to get out.

Authorities in 2008 found animal pens scattered on the patio and driveway and several others inside the garage and basement. They had a black panther in the basement and two tigers and two lion cubs in the garage.

On a patio next to the Thompson's pool, two lion cubs and one black bear cub were housed in the same pen.

Terry Thompson's wife, Marian, was quoted in the records released Friday telling detectives that they took in the animals because no one else wanted them. She also said she was trying to end the practice.

"I'm going to put a stop to bringing in all these animals. I'm telling Terry, 'No more,'" she said in a report filed April 13, 2005.

Authorities told the couple to fix the cages or they would get a court order forcing the changes.

In one 2005 complaint, a neighbor said horses from Thompson's property walked to her car, "and started licking the vehicle to get water from the rain."

Thompson's estranged sister, Polly Thompson, says her brother was likely overwhelmed financially when he committed suicide.

Terry Thompson had just returned to the property after a year in federal prison on possessing unregistered weapons charges.

Court records show that the Thompsons owed at least $68,000 in unpaid taxes to the IRS and the county, and he had two federal tax liens filed against him last year.

"I can just see him standing on that hill looking at every animal, thinking, 'How am I going to do this?'" Polly Thompson, 56, told the AP late Thursday.

"And I'm sure he thought, 'Nobody wants me,'" she said.

Polly Thompson said her brother threw himself into any activity he undertook and it was no different when he began collecting wild animals about 15 years ago. His first animal was a lion cub named Simba, she said.

Her brother summed up his philosophy in a frequently quoted line, she said: "We're not here for a long time, just a good time."

Her brother got by financially on proceeds from a motorcycle business he sold, sales of horse trailers and other equipment and a small family inheritance. He was also a pilot who occasionally flew chartered planes for businesses.

Thompson reluctantly testified against her brother about five years ago when he was charged with starving bison and cattle kept at their parents' farm near Zanesville.

"Anybody that has animals should take care of them," she said in an interview at her home on 10 acres on the outskirts of Zanesville.

"I don't care who you are, if you can't take care of them, it's not right, you shouldn't have them," she said. "Who wants to testify against their brother?"

Deputies killed 48 animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears — in a hunt across the Ohio countryside that lasted nearly 24 hours and that has been criticized by some who say the animals should have been saved. Only a monkey was still missing, and it was probably killed by one of the big cats, the county sheriff says.

Seewer reported from Toledo. Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman and Ann Sanner in Columbus also contributed to this report.

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