Exotic animals to be returned to widow in Zanesville, Ohio

Five exotic animals -- the survivors of dozens freed by their owner, who then killed himself -- will be returned to his widow, Ohio officials announced on Monday.

The announcement came at an administrative hearing to determine the future of the animals -- two leopards, two primates and a bear -- who have been lodged at the Columbus zoo under a quarantine order, state officials confirmed by telephone. At a hearing last week, Ohio officials testified that preliminary results showed that the animals were free of dangerous infectious diseases and could be returned.

Still to be worked out is when the animals will be returned to Marian Thompson, of Zanesville, Ohio. Thompson is the widow of Terry Thompson, whose actions and suicide touched off a national debate on state regulation, the care of exotic animals and security.

Photos: Exotic animals deliberately freed in Ohio

On Oct. 18, Terry Thompson released 56 animals he was keeping at his Zanesville farm in eastern Ohio, then committed suicide. The animals, a collection of exotics including bears, mountain lions, Bengal tigers and primates, roamed the area until officials hunted them down and killed 48. One leopard was later euthanized, and some of the animals are believed to have been eaten by other escapees.

The five surviving animals were placed in the care of the zoo but have been at the center of a custody battle between Thompson and the state.

On Monday, the state gave up its fight, conceding, in effect, that it had reached the end of its legal powers to hold the animals.

“The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s review of the health of the five surviving animals from the Thompson farm is complete, and no dangerously infectious or contagious diseases were found. The quarantine will be lifted later today, and the animals will soon be returned to Marian Thompson,” the agency said in a statement emailed to reporters.

Ohio officials had issued the quarantine order because of questions about how the animals were kept in Zanesville and whether they were possibly diseased or had rabies. The state also wanted assurance that the surviving animals would be properly kept.

The Thompson family has insisted it had the resources and the facilities to care for the animals. State officials said they were still worried, but could do little given the laws.

“Mrs. Thompson has indicated that she intends to take the animals back to her farm in Zanesville and place them back into the cages which they inhabited prior to the October 18 tragedy,” the state said in its statement. “This raises concerns, as she has indicated the cages have not been repaired, and has repeatedly refused to allow animal welfare experts to evaluate if conditions are safe for the animals and sufficient to prevent them from escaping and endangering the community.

“Unfortunately, current law gives enforcement powers to local authorities, not the state. ... Hopefully legislation pending in the General Assembly will be completed soon so that new, broader, tougher rules can go into effect to better protect the public from dangerous wild animals and ensure these kinds of animals are kept under the care of veterinarians and in enclosures that are clean and adequate. Until then we can only hope that local officials choose to act to prevent another tragedy.”

Photos: Exotic animals deliberately freed in Ohio

The Zanesville incident prompted a review by the state of its regulations on allowing exotic animals. The state Senate has passed a bill to toughen the licensing requirements for current owners and to ban the acquisition of monkeys, lions and other exotic animals -- except by zoos, sanctuaries and research facilities.

The measure is pending in the state’s other chamber.


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