The killing by Muskingam County law enforcement officers of 49 of 56 exotic animals let loose by their late owner stirred feelings of anger, disbelief and empathy by local authorities touched by the mid-week incident.
Wapakoneta native Mike Kohlreiser, who operates Understanding Wildlife, a company started with his wife, Marsha, in 1992 to educate people about wild animals, said he was struck with a range of emotions when news broke of Terry Thompson being found dead at his complex outside of Zanesville and his menagerie of exotic animals being freed.
He felt anger and disbelief at Thompson’s death, the animals being let out of their cages and their subsquent death as well as upset regarding the situation and people jumping to conclusions regarding the owner, the animals and a law enforcement official’s response based on the information initially released by national TV news and wire services.
“It is so horrible that something like this had to happen anywhere at any time,” Kohlrieser said. “The animals we have — and we do not have any animals like he had such as tigers, lions and leopards — but the animals we have are like family to us. We love them and we care about them.”
Even days later, Kohlrieser said he intends to reserve judgment regarding the actions of Muskingam County Sheriff Matt Lutz and his deputies. Deputies killed 49 animals — including 18 Bengal tigers, 9 lions, eight lionesses and eight bears — during a hunt that lasted nearly 24 hours in the east-central Ohio county. Of the 56 animals freed, six were rescued and one wolf was found dead and a monkey was believed killed by one of the large cats.
Some reports indicate the animals did not travel further than 500 yards away from their pens, which were opened along with fences at the facility to free the animals onto the roads surrounding the Muskingam County Animal Farm. Thompson, 62, killed himself and his body was found near the empty cages with a bite on his head, which appeared to have been inflicted by a big cat.
“The authorities there had to have their backs up against the wall in what they could do,” Kohlrieser said. “I feel for them because people criticized them and said they should have done this or they should have done that — but it is very difficult to do some of the things people suggested or thought was possible.”
Listening to an expert on the news, Kohlrieser recounted one expert said even in the best of circumstances it is difficult to tranquilize and handle an animal, especially big cats and bears — yet alone in the situation the deputies were thrust into.
While Kohlrieser’s show consists of animals found in the rain forests such as parrots, snakes, an anteater and a lemur, he said he is worried knee-jerk legislation will lump owners of any kind of wild animal into one category.
He explained exotic animal owners are regulated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies and they are subject to unannounced visits to ensure the well-being of the animals.
“I am all for good regulations especially those dealing with the welfare of the animal,” Kohlrieser said.
He said his operation visits New Jersey and California, two states with the strictest laws regarding animal ownership, and he has no problems.
While he is not required by law, he said for the past 20 years he made area law enforcement authorities aware of the animals associated with his business.
Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon said this information is beneficial should his deputies have to respond to an emergency of this nature, noting he empathized with Lutz. Solomon stressed the primary goal of the sheriff is to ensure the safety of and to protect the public.
“He had to react with what information he had and with the necessary manpower to handle the situation,” Solomon said. “In a situation like that, you make the best decision you can at the time knowing you have to protect the public.
“If you have a facility, you better have some knowledge of what is there,” he said.
While they have no formal plans to deal with exotic animals roaming free, Solomon said the key to protecting the people is having an inventory of the animals on a farm or home and having adequate manpower.
“I think you have to get all the deputies out to the scene, as much manpower, as many people as you can get out there to protect the public,” Solomon said. “I would also contact the wildlife officer, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and people from other appropriate state departments for assistance.
“You want to use tranquilizers if you can to protect the animals if possible, but your primary responsibility is to protect the public from harm,” he said. “Some people, especially the younger ones, are not going to know if they are a dangerous animal.”
The sheriff said the difference between Zanesville and Auglaize County is the number and type of animals involved — most exotic animals here are a species of deer to be sold for meat. While a few predators can be found in the area, they are regulated and overseen by state and federal agencies.
Solomon said if something of the size of Thompson’s farm existed in this county, the existence of a plan would increase because the sheer number of exotic animals.
When arriving at a scene like the one in Zanesville is the difficulty in knowing the true number of animals at a complex since existing laws do not require a person to report what they own with the county sheriff.
Solomon revealed they have animal tranquilizer available, but not in the amount needed to deal with the number of animals at Thompson’s complex nor the size of the animals.
He also mentioned with Thompson taking his own life, the animals lost their primary caretaker.
“When these animals get out into the world, you have a two-fold problem,” Solomon said. “They are used to people which means they have lost their fear of people and they feel comfortable with people so they approach them more readily, but you have to be very cautious because they are typically used to being around only one person.”
The sheriff cited cases where animals have turned on their owners, noting one occurred with a tiger during a Las Vegas show performance and a second with a bear near a Cleveland facility.
Kohlrieser seconded the opinion and he and members of his show have explained to people for years the immense responsibility in taking care of non-domesticated animals.
“We always explain why exotic animals do not make good house pets,” Kohlrieser said. “It is such a big responsibility. You have to take care of them seven days a week, every day of the year — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day — and the animals become very dependent on their owner and they form a very strong bond with their owners.
“The average person does not realize or know what it takes to raise an exotic animal,” he said. “It is an immense task.”