How the Zanesville animals were shot

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  November/December 2011:
ZANESVILLE–Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz on the evening of October 18,  2011 ordered his deputies to kill 18 tigers, 17 African lions,  six black bears,  two grizzly bears,  two wolves, and a baboon because he believed that the circumstances under which they were running loose–including a failed attempt to shut some of them back in their breached cages–left no other options.

Reported Zanesville Times Recorder staff writer Hannah Sparling,  “Sam Kopchak,  64,  owns about four acres on Kopchak Road,”  next door to Terrry Thompson’s 73-acre Muskingum County Animal Farm.  Kopchak was walking his horse Red back to his barn when he noticed a group of about 30 horses on Thompson’s property acting
strange,  he said.  He looked a little closer and saw they were running from a bear.  Then, Kopchak turned around and saw a male African lion standing about 30 feet from him and Red.  The only thing separating them was a 4- or 5-foot wire fence,  he said.”

“I don’t know how I controlled myself,”  Kopchak told Sparling.  “We made a beeline toward my barn.”

Continued Sparling,  “Kopchak called his mother, who called the sheriff’s office.  Deputies were on the scene about 15 minutes later,  he said.”

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told Associated Press that his office began getting calls at about 5:30 p.m. that wild animals were running loose on Kopchak Road  just west of Zanesville,  near the Interstate 70 overpass.  The sheriff’s office recognized the location:  they had often before responded to escapes from the Muskingum County Animal Farm.  Terry Thompson had been warned repeatedly since 2004 to improve security at the Muskingum County Animal Farm:  30 times in the past year alone,  county officials said.  Previously,  however,  loose animals were captured without further incident.

“Matt Lutz and his deputies thought they were dealing with just a couple of animals,”  wrote Josh Jarman of the Columbus Dispatch.  Their initial concern was that school buses were still on the road locally,  and I-70 traffic was heavy with people driving home from work.

The deputies realized that the situation was more than just another escape,  Associated Press pieced together from their incident reports a week later,  when they saw Terry Thompson’s body lying near his cages.  The deputies could not approach to determine whether Thompson was alive because a white tiger “appeared to be eating the
body,”  the deputies reported.  Most of the cages were unlocked, with holes cut in the fencing.

Preliminary autopsy findings obtained by the Columbus Dispatch showed that Thompson had scattered chicken parts around himself,   put the barrel of a handgun in his mouth,  and pulled the trigger.  In addition to the bite mark that authorities said Thompson received on his head from a large cat mere moments after he shot himself, the autopsy revealed lacerations, puncture marks and abrasions to his head, neck and genitals, which occurred at about the time of his death.

Muskingum County sheriff’s deputy Jonathan Merry,  25,  the second deputy to reach the scene,  “was told to check on the home where the 911 call had originated, the residence of Sam Kopchak Jr.” Jarman continued.  “He drove to Kopchak’s place,  but had no sooner knocked on the door than he saw what he estimated to be a 130-pound gray wolf running down the middle of the narrow country road away from the Thompson property.  Merry radioed for instructions.  Lutz, who was on his way there from his home,  told him not to let the wolf escape into the countryside.

“Merry followed the wolf in his car south on Kopchak Road until the wolf ran up a driveway,  past a neighbor’s barn,  and headed for the open field behind the house.  Merry,  a member of the sheriff’s special-response team,  took the .223-caliber rifle from the trunk of his cruiser and shot the wolf before the wolf could reach the tree line.”

The rifle was of much lighter caliber than is usually used to hunt large animals,  but it was the most accurate weapon available.

Merry drove to Thompson’s driveway to meet the other responding deputies as they arrived.   He was told that a lion was cornered at the Thompson home,  “but it turned out to be a black bear,”  wrote Zanesville Times Recorder staff writer Kathy Thompson, not related to Terry Thompson.

Recounted Merry,  “I got out of my car,  and the bear came charging at me.”  Using his sidearm,  because he had no time to grab the rifle,  “I shot the bear about seven feet away from me,”  Merry said.

“Merry turned around to see a lioness scoot under the livestock fence and run south on Kopchak Road,”  Thompson wrote.

“All the animals were heading away from the Thompson farm,” Merry said. “They were running in all different directions.”

Wrote Jarman,  “As the only officer there with a rifle, Merry was ordered to shoot any animal who left the property.  In the next few minutes,  Merry killed the lioness,  a mountain lion who followed her,  and a male African lion that he saw in the driveway of a property next door.  The second lion didn’t come from the same part of the fence as the other animals who had slipped through.  That’s when Merry realized the enormity of the situation,  he said.   As more deputies and Sheriff Lutz arrived on the scene,  Merry was ordered to take his cruiser and rifle down to I-70,  which runs along the northern border of Terry Thompson’s property,  to keep animals from escaping into the highway.  When he got there,  he noticed that a section of fence along the interstate had been knocked down.  On the freeway side of the fence was another gray wolf.  While standing watch along the highway,  Merry shot the wolf,  two male African lions,  a Bengal tiger and a grizzly bear  who all would have made their way into traffic.”

There were efforts made to capture animals instead of shooting them.  “A tiger and a black bear were in the same
enclosure,”  Associated Press said,  “but the door was unlocked and open.”

Recounted deputy Jay Lawhorne,  “As I backed the team up, the tiger came out the door and charged right at us.” Lawthorne said that a lion came within three feet of an auxiliary deputy who tried to close the cage door before seeing that the cage had been cut.

Altogether,  25 animals were shot within the first hour and sixteen minutes after the Muskingum County sheriff’s office received the first call that animals were loose.

Eventually,  wrote Jarman,  “The deputies were assisted by the Highway Patrol,  authorities from the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds, the Ohio Division of Wildlife,  the county Emergency Management Agency,  and township fire department.  A plan to bring in a helicopter with a thermal-imaging camera to find animals was scuttled by stormy weather.”

Barb Wolfe,  DVM,  arrived from The Wilds with a tranquilizer gun.  She darted a tiger.  “But he became extremely aggressive,” Wolfe told Kathy Thompson.  “He turned and ran off,”  capable of running for five or ten minutes before dropping,  even if the tranquilizer dart took effect,  “and we knew we would have to shoot him.  The deputies couldn’t take any chances with him.”

Lamented Columbus Zoo associate veterinarian Gwen Myers,  “We were unable to tranquilize any of the animals.”  Besides trying to work in an uncontrolled setting,  without fences to contain the animals and enable veterinarians to dart animals in relative safety, Myers explained,  the vets did not know the weights of the animals or when they last ate.  Thus there was little way to guesstimate the drug doses needed to drop each animal.

Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies shot another 24 animals during the night.  Terry Thompson had cut the wire cages so that most could no longer be used,  but Good Morning America reported that food baits were placed in the cages that remained secure to try to lure animals back.  Only six animals were captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo for safekeeping.  A monkey,  never found,  was believed to have been eaten by one of the big cats.

Among the first experts to reach the scene was Columbus Zoo director emeritus Jack Hanna,  who had attended nearby Muskingum University in New Concord.

Said Hanna in an October 23,  2011 talk at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center in Decatur,  Illinois,  as reported by Decatur
Herald-Review staff writer Jim Vorel,  “They had three tranquilizer guns on scene.  With an hour of daylight left,  I couldn’t have done anything different even if I had 50 tranquilizer guns.  We’d heard about the animal owner [Terry Thompson] before,  but in Ohio,  there are a lot like him because there were no laws to prevent it.  We’d even sent people there to check it out two years prior,”  Hanna said.

“What they saw wasn’t the best,  but it wasn’t the worst, either, and they weren’t allowed to do anything about it.”
“I never thought anything like this could ever happen here,” Hanna told an earlier media conference.

But there was historical irony in Hanna’s comment.  Hanna between 1976 and 1990 clashed repeatedly with the late Steve Graham, director of the Detroit Zoo from 1981 to 1990,  over the ethics of selling surplus zoo animals to private dealers.  Graham,  previously director of the Antietam Humane Society in Pennsylvania,  favored killing animals rather than taking the chance that they might end up at hunting ranches,  roadside zoos,  or badly kept private

Hanna maintained a no-kill policy,  but at least five times between 1986 and 1990 the Columbus Zoo sold animals to dealers who resold them to inappropriate destinations,  as exposed in January 1990 by CBS 60 Minutes.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.