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By now they had also decided that they would need to neutralize all of the animals that were loose, even those still on Thompson's property, so they formed a shooting party. Blake drove Kanavel's Silverado crew cab, and four others sat on the bed of the truck behind him so that they wouldn't have to fire out of windows. As they pulled up between the barn and a row of cages, two tigers started out of the barn toward them. The animals were only about ten or twelve feet away.
The white tiger was atop him. At p.
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Code 16 [dead on arrival], possible 58 [suicide]. Unknown for sure on that. Here in the field. That was all the five of them could learn for now because they were urgently redeployed to the southern end of the property where some cats had been spotted readying to cross the boundary fence. First they had to deal with a male African lion that managed to run between some junk cars after the first shot—there were dozens and dozens of old cars and RVs and tractors parked in clumps of rusted metal around the hillside, weeds growing around them. As they moved toward other escapees spread over the hillside, they used the truck to give themselves elevation, trying to engage the animals from seventy to a hundred yards away, firing on them two at a time until they went down.
Kanavel's tactic was to shoot for the head a couple of times, and then move on to the body and keep putting rounds into it. After a while the four shooters ran low on ammo and called for more, and eventually they headed back toward where the body was. The white tiger had gone.
Nearby, they found bolt cutters and a stainless-steel Ruger. The cause of death seemed to be a gunshot to the head. One detail Sheriff Lutz chose to release to the press at the time was that there was a sizable laceration on Thompson's head that was consistent with a big cat's bite. Deliberately or not, he seemed to imply that Thompson's body was, aside from the gunshot wound suggesting a barrel placed in the mouth, otherwise fairly untouched.
It wasn't quite that straightforward. There were also pieces of raw chicken scattered around near the body. All evening it went on, the slaughter. Encounters with animals that would normally have been remembered for a lifetime were forgotten moments later as the next came along. Somehow, no one was hurt. Even Mr. Kopchak, forgotten in his barn, safely managed to make his way unescorted back to his house at nightfall. Given the situation—fifty animals, mostly large and potentially aggressive carnivores set loose toward the day's end—things could have gone so much worse.
Up near the house, where no media could see them, the officers laid the dead animals out in rows, by species, to ease the counting. That's where the famous, heartbreaking photo was taken—it remains unclear who took it—of all the bodies together in the early-morning light, the one that went round the world.
Whatever people knew of the real situation, and of the hard decisions that had to be made, when you saw that image all you could think was: This is a photo of a place where dozens of big beautiful animals were massacred. By the time the Columbus Zoo team had arrived at the holding area, it was dark. They were told that it wasn't safe for them to try to tranquilize anything because so many animals were circulating and others were scattering outward. Even when a tranquilizer dose is successfully administered it needs about ten minutes to take effect, and great care is required to establish that it has done so—impossible with so many animals running around.
When the zoo people returned to the site at five-thirty the next morning, they had been joined by Jack Hanna. Hanna—famous for his TV shows and his appearances on shows like Letterman—established his career at the Columbus Zoo and remains its director emeritus. If you visit the Columbus Zoo, his face is everywhere—even on the Pepsi machines. The previous day he was doing an event at Penn State, and although he'd just had knee surgery, he drove straight here "a hundred miles an hour.
After the sheriff spoke with Hanna and talked him through what happened, he gave interview after interview. It probably made all the difference. Hanna was a trusted animal advocate, and as he emotively articulated his pain at the deaths that had taken place, his unequivocal insistence that the sheriff's department had no other option than to act as they did served as a powerful antidote to the other obvious narrative—that a thoughtless small-town law-enforcement brigade had murdered dozens of noble beasts because they were too dumb and trigger-happy to think of a better alternative.
Forty-nine animals would be confirmed dead. There was now only one unaccounted for—a macaque. Though no trace would be found of it, dead or alive, it was eventually decided that it had most likely been eaten by one of the cats. Six of Terry Thompson's animals survived. Three were leopards, still in their cages.
Two more were the macaques kept in the living room of the house in two small birdcages. And finally, out back near the empty swimming pool, was a small grizzly bear, also in a birdcage. The house itself was disgusting. Garbage bags filled with garbage that were knocked over, and the filth. I saw a pair of pants on the ground and the belt was twine. It was very sad to see—how someone clearly had lost their mind. There are no sane people that would live in those conditions. Thompson's wife, Marian, arrived around lunchtime.
She had to be convinced that the survivors should be taken to the zoo for safekeeping. Marian insisted on removing the macaques from their cages herself, waving off the zoo personnel's advice about the risk she was taking. Her bond with them certainly seemed real. Before she opened the cage, she sang to them a lullaby, and they clung to her as she took them one by one to their carriers. It was decided that the dead animals be buried, there and then, on the property.
Thompson chose the spot. A big digger was brought in and a hole was dug maybe thirty feet deep.
The animals were scooped by the bucketload, placed in the hole, and earth backhoed over them. Thompson's body was taken from the scene for an autopsy at the Licking County Coroner's, where it revealed a few of its secrets. At death Terry William Thompson was five feet five inches tall and weighed pounds. He had been wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and white briefs. His gallbladder had been removed earlier in life, and he was suffering from severe atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
The only notable substance in his blood was Benadryl. There was gray powder residue on his left hand that appeared to be from a gun being fired. Others were noted on his torso and his legs. Where they should have been, there was nothing but a raw gap. That was Terry Thompson's final grotesque parting gift—a last meal for one of his animals, sometime before it, too, met its death by bullet on the sad night of October 18, , near Zanesville, Ohio.
For the majority of Americans who know little about the world of exotic animals, the astonishing events in Zanesville begged some obvious questions. How could a private citizen have amassed a collection of so many unusual and potentially dangerous animals in the first place?
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Surely he must have broken every law that prevents your next-door neighbor from secretly housing an ambush of tigers? The answer to that first question: It's surprisingly easy. The answer to the second question is: What laws? Though Ohio legislators are now scrambling to rectify this, the state where Terry Thompson lived is one of a handful where the regulations on exotic-animal ownership have historically been very light.
Your neighbor could buy as many tigers, lions, cougars, and other exotic animals as he so desired and would be under no obligation to tell anyone.