The Massacre in Zanesville, Ohio: Why?


We may never know the whole story of why Terry Thompson let out 50 exotic animals then put a gun to his head.  The Ohio tragedy that occurred in Zanesville last week will continue to haunt us. The photos of so many dead carcasses lying on the ground together is something I doubt has been seen before in the U.S., and hopefully, it will never be seen again.

But the fact remains that 49 of Thompson’s exotic pets were shot dead and one  – a monkey — was presumed eaten by one of the cats.  Six survived because their cages were not opened by Thompson.

Those survivors, which include three leopards, two monkeys and a grizzly bear are currently being cared for at the Columbus Zoo.  Among the dead are 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears and two grizzly bears, three cougars, two wolves and a baboon.

Marian Thompson, widow of Terry Thompson, has expressed a desire to be allowed to bring those six animals back to the farm where she wants to care for them.  She has stated she was very bonded with the animals, especially the primates.  She even allowed the female primate to sleep with her in bed.  At her request, the 49 animals killed last week were buried on the farm.

Animals Shot and Not Tranquilized
A lot of anger has been expressed toward the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Office for issuing the “shoot to kill” order.  Animal advocates and many others wonder why the animals weren’t tranquilized rather than shooting them.

There are several things to consider here. First, a police department with the responsibility for a population of 85,000 people would not have enough tranquilizer guns available to sedate more than 50 exotic animals.

Second, the process of tranquilizing wild animals is not as simple as loading a dart into a gun.  The weight of the animal has to be taken into account to ensure enough medicine — and not too much — is loaded in the syringe.  The animal’s weights were unknown and estimating those figures during a face-to-face encounter with an exotic animal seems impractical.

Third, the tranquilizing effect is not immediate.  It can take up to 20 minutes for the animal to fully succumb to the medicine.  In the meantime, that creature would be moving around and potentially in a more aggressive mood from being shot with a dart.

Fourth, in the Zanesville scenario, the event happened at dusk.  The lag time between getting a dart in an animal and rendering them into unconsciousness meant the responders would not be able to easily track a darted animal.  So there was a high probability a darted animal would awaken later in the night and roam further, posing a higher risk of potentially dangerous human-animal interaction.

As much as I would have preferred police to have attempted tranquilizing over bullets, it seems an unacceptable risk.  It was not only humans who were in danger, but livestock on neighboring farms as well.

Next: Understanding Terry Thompson

Photo credit from Flickr: OZinOH

Understanding Terry Thompson
Most people don’t understand how Thompson could have done what he did.  It seems such an unfathomable thing. I was able to get some background information from a friend of Thompson’s, Retired USMC Sgt. Andrew Brandi.  Both Thompson and Brandi are Vietnam veterans — although they did not serve together — who suffered with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from their combat experiences.  Thompson was a helicopter door gunner and had many kills to his name during his Vietnam service.

In a phone interview, Sgt. Brandi told me “Veterans carry the baggage of the war with them for the rest of their lives.”  In an effort “to make up for the killing we’ve done,” said Sgt. Brandi, many take in animals as they attempt “to transition from the warrior world to the civilian world.”

Sgt. Brandi feels this is what must have happened with Thompson.  When they knew each other in Zanesville, Thompson hadn’t yet begun collecting exotic animals; he had mostly dogs. “He had a good heart and was so kind and loving toward animals,” Sgt. Brandi recalled. “For him to have done this, he must have been caught in a place where you don’t see any hope; a very dark, alone feeling of hopelessness.”

Sgt. Brandi counsels veterans returning from combat, many of whom suffer with PTSD. His website speaks out to soldiers with the message “Your new and toughest Mission: Adapt to who you have now become.”  See what he has to say about veterans and animals.  His message is especially pertinent for those soldiers who are scheduled to return from Iraq in the near future.

Terry Thompson had a history of run-ins with the law.  Sgt. Brandi recalled the many times local police in Zanesville would stop Terry for not wearing a seat belt. He told me that is why Thompson moved back on his family’s farm outside of town. On the 73 acre farm, he could maintain a greater sense of isolation from the outside world.  This is when he began to acquire exotic animals.

Thompson also dealt in weapons; it was one of the ways he financially supported the animals. He had just been released from a year in prison on federal weapons charges before he decided to open the animal’s cages and shoot himself.

Other sources of income include proceeds from the sale of his motorcycle business, sales of horse trailers and other equipment and a small family inheritance, as cited by the Washington Post.  He was also a pilot that occasionally flew chartered planes for businesses. But the cost of feeding and caring for so many exotic animals is staggering.  Thompson was in debt to the IRS and county tax authorities for close to $70,000.

The Effort to Capture Thompson’s Exotic Animals
It wasn’t just local police that went looking for the 50 exotic animals that Thompson released just before he committed suicide. Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz called in experts from the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds Animal Preserve in Cumberland, Ohio.

Barb Wolfe, a veterinarian with The Wilds Animal Preserve, attempted to tranquilize a tiger but the animal charged her and had to be shot by sheriff’s deputies.  “I was about 15 feet from him and took a shot, and it didn’t respond too much, and I thought we were OK, but within about 10 seconds he roared and started toward me,” said Dr. Wolfe as reported by Fox

“What a tragedy,” said Dr. Wolfe “We knew that … there were so many dangerous animals at this place that eventually something bad would happen, but I don’t think anybody really knew it would be this bad.”

Next: How Exotic Animals Came to Zanesville

Photo credit Flickr: CH&AL

How Exotic Animals Came to Zanesville
The first exotic animal Thompson bought was a lion cub as a gift for his wife.  Through the years, he added others through purchasing from auctions, trading guns and taking in unwanted exotic pets.  The Thompsons did not put the animals on display or derive income from them.  From all accounts, they loved their animals and wanted to provide good care.

“Once you have an exotic animal, you’re somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that’s how it grew,” Thompson said, in a deposition that was part of the government’s attempt to seize 133 weapons from him.

Part of the problem is the lack of laws in Ohio regarding exotic animals.  According to an HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) press release, if Ohio’s emergency rule had not been allowed to expire earlier this year, the tragedy in Zanesville would not have happened. Since Thompson had convictions in 2005 for animal abuse, he would have been barred from owning exotic animals and they would have been removed before his return from prison.

In response to the Zanesville tragedy, Ohio Governor John Kasich issued an executive order on Friday, October 21 calling on local authorities and humane societies to strongly enforce existing animal welfare laws.  He issued a date of November 30, 2011 for completion of a new law regarding exotic animals.

Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS thinks this is too little, too late.  “In recent years, Ohioans have died and suffered injuries because the state hasn’t stopped private citizens from keeping dangerous wild animals as pets or as roadside attractions. Owners of large, exotic animals are a menace to society, and it’s time for the delaying on the rulemaking to end,” said Pacelle in a press release.

It goes on to say that “Ohio is one of fewer than 10 states that don’t regulate private ownership of dangerous wild animals, jeopardizing public safety and animal welfare. Addressing the issue was one of the elements of a deal struck by The HSUS and agricultural leaders in the state to advance a series of animal welfare policies in the state.”

Michael Markarian, President of HSUS Legislative Fund, recently participated in a podcast about the Zanesville tragedy.

Animal auctions, like those highlighted in the recently released documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, are all too common in Ohio.  The documentary — which all but predicted the Zanesville tragedy — also mentions online websites where people can purchase exotic animals, like the Animal Finder’s Guide.  There you can buy tigers, lions, primates and almost any animal you can think of.  The question to ask is: should it be legal for individuals to own and house exotic animals?

The documentary states that currently, 30 states allow exotic animal ownership. But nine states, including Ohio, have no licensing or permit regulations of exotic animals.

The scope of the tragedy in Zanesville has brought worldwide attention to the issue of exotic pet ownership.  Pennsylvania and other states are already addressing their current laws because of it.

How sad it must be that for any action to occur, a waste of human and animal life has to take place like it did last week in Ohio.


Related Stories:

Exotic Animals Run Loose in Ohio

Exotic Animals Freed then Killed in Ohio

Exotic Pets: Bad for Animals, Bad for Humans


Photo credit Flickr: Cody Kwok

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Lisa Wood
Lisa Wood1 years ago

Such a sad story!

Susan B.
susan B.2 years ago

This broke my heart. Such a horrific killing spree. It still brings tears.

Aud Nordby
Aud nordby2 years ago


Jude Hand
Judith Hand2 years ago

A beautifully written article, thanks. I was especially interested in the input from his fellow Viet Nam vet.

Janet McGillacuddy

I understand that Thompson was mentally ill, but why release the animals he was supposed to have loved and cared about? He must have known what would happen to them. He was also charged with animal abuse in 2005 so why was he allowed to own any animals at all after that?

Of course the authorities are to blame here for allowing exotic animals as pets. These animals were kept in small cages, which is unacceptable for any animal, let alone big cats. Hopefully John Kerry's bill will succeed and the ownership of exotic animals by private citizens will be a thing of the past.

And yes, why does it always take a tragedy of this magnitude before something is done about the situation?? Lawmakers and politicians have a lot to answer for.

Carole R.
Carole R.3 years ago

Very sad.

nicky o.
nicky o;farrell3 years ago

Just seen documentary about this, it was nothing but a massacre and bloodbath. It was an appalling tragedy that was totally unecessary and totally avoidable. Whats also sickening is that tiger are on the critically endangered ist so this should never have bee allowed to happen. they knew these animals were there. safeguards should have been in place, the animals should have been tranquilised, they had a unique opportunity they could have been put in zoos in a captive breeding programme. as for the sheriffs, apart frome one, the rest expressed no regret, they seemed to revel in telling how they shot them, like they were trophies in a big hunt. they made me sick those people are hard hearted bastrds, who have no kindness, no empathy, no heart and no soul. i don't think they will be welcome in heaven, destroying gods creatues. if they want to do that they shoud join the army, that shoud be right up their street!!!!!!!!!!!

Maria D'Oporto
Past Member 3 years ago

So pathetc and sad this should never happen

Karen R.
Karen R.3 years ago

I agree with Lovely D.!

Marcia O.
Marcia Oyler3 years ago

I live not far from this debacle. This could have been avoided.