It was one of the most talked about stories in central Ohio. Dozens of exotic animals ran loose in Muskingum County after their owner set them free and then killed himself.
One neighbor called the day – Oct. 18, 2011 – a terrible one.
Terry Thompson released 56 animals, including lions, tigers, bears and monkeys, free to feed on anything or anyone in their paths. In all, 49 of the animals were shot and killed by authorities.
“How do I remember it? I remember it as a terrible day,” said Sam Kopchak, who lives next door to the Thompson farm.
Kopchak confronted the danger as he unknowingly walked his horse to his barn, next door to the Thompson property.
When he went to get his horse, Red, he saw Thompson’s horses running in a circle. And then he saw a bear.
“Probably about three or four posts over to the left of that tree is where the big male lion was sitting,” Kopchak said. “When I saw him, I naturally was scared.”
He said he made sure not to look the lion in the eyes as he guided his horse, stepping as calmly as he could, back to the barn. He measured the distance later – 150 yards.
“One and a half football fields, and I took people, it’s the longest walk of my life really,” Kopchak said.
He secured anything he could to serve as a protective barrier between himself, the lion and the bear. He joined his horse in the barn.
He called his mother and asked her to call 911. Instead, she first called the Thompson farm.
“My mom tried to call the number we had for them, no answer,” Kopchak said. “I said, ‘If you’re going to do that, make it snappy. We have two animals out.’ When I saw the bear, I was concerned. When I saw the lion, now I was really concerned.”
Kopchak’s mother called 911. Sgt. Steve Blake was the first to respond to the scene.
“It still doesn’t seem like it happened,” Kopchak said. “I know it did, but it doesn’t seem real – n ever experienced anything like it.”
Upon arrival, he said, he knew the situation was not good.
“Right about here, about this curve, I started seeing animals everyplace, just everywhere,” Blake said. “I got out of my car. I had to. Someone had to find out what was going on.”
Blake had the help of his gun and one of the Thompson farm animal handlers, John Moore.
They went inside the Thompson home but saw no sign of Terry. Driving back down the long road from the house, Moore spotted Thompson.
“Moore looked back and saw Terry lying there. We got out. There was a tiger eating him,” Blake said.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said that he quickly had to figure out how to handle the animals.
“We knew they would be hungry, we knew they could travel distances in a short time, we had no idea how many animals we were dealing with and how many were out. We had no tranquilizer guns,” Lutz said.
Tom Stalf with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium said that tranquilizers were not an option.
“When you’re talking about adrenaline and an animal that’s now out of its element, you have to make sure you can dart the animal correctly – that the injection in that dart goes into the bloodstream. And that’s between nine and 15 minutes the animal will be sedated when you’re able to capture him,” Stalf said.
Lutz said the No. 1 thing on his mind was public safety.
“There was no way I’d put an animal’s life on top of our citizens,” Lutz said.
According to Stalf, Lutz mad the right decision.
“The sheriff had to make a horrible, right decision, and that was to dispatch the animal,” Stalf said.
Blake remembers how difficult it was for one of his colleagues.
“There was the black bear I’d seen by the gate, and Deputy Merry shot it at really close range with a pistol. He kept saying, ‘Sergeant, I didn’t have any choice.’ I said, ‘You did what I told you to do.’ He was bereft. You can tell he was shaken up.”
Blake did not shoot any of the animals, but in trying to track down the exotic animals, he drove a pick-up truck with four of his colleagues in the bed of the truck, ready with guns.
“There was no reluctance on my part, because if we didn’t stop those animals there, somebody was going to be injured or killed,” said Det. Sgt. Todd Kanaval.
The approach was almost methodical. Anyone who saw an animal told Blake to stop driving.
“There was this one tiger that came toward the truck and they yelled, ‘Stop!’ I stopped and a shot went off. This patch of fur just flew off, and I could see its spine and the rest of the rounds hit it. These things would do summersaults and you could tell the tiger was shot and was struggling to live … we had to kill him.”
Kanaval helped search on foot.
“When we were on foot, going through the barns, stuff was growling,” Kanaval said. “We were trying to secure some of the animals back in the pen. I remember a lioness roared, came out at us. We made contact about four feet away.”
Blake and Kopchak agreed that one of the most terrifying things was knowing that something could strike at any time.
“I just remember I thought, ‘It’s just never going to end.’ No end to it.”
From his barn window, Kopchak watched some of the animals pacing and running. He moved after a shot or two morphed into sustained gunfire.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, they’re shooting these animals.’ So, I really hated what I was hearing,” Kopchak said. “I didn’t look out. I stood in the middle of the barn, when it was shooting, to stay close to the horses, but also if any stray bullets flying around, and also the animals could come up to the barn and pick up a scent.”
As dusk gave way to dark, Kopchak made another move. He took a second frightening walk – this time, to his house.
Stalf called the day a war zone.
“No one knew how many animals (there were), Stalf said. “When I first arrived there, they said 19, there are 19 animals out. Then it went to 24. Then to 36. In the end, it was 56.”
Stalf said that crews had to work to ID the animals and to find someone who knew who they were.
“You look at these beautiful animals, and I’ll never forget them in the mud, lying there, and I just thought, ‘Who would do this. Why did this happen?’”
The Columbus Zoo took custody of a bear, there leopards and two monkeys. One taken into custody died at the zoo.
After months, five surviving exotics went home to the widow of Terry Thompson, Marian Thompson.
Muskingum County Humane Society President Barry McElfresh knows Marian and said he has looked into complaints about her horses since last year. He said the complaints were unfounded.
“With us, she’s very reasonable. Very reasonable,” McElfresh said. “She has no animosity toward us for being there. She knows that the humane officer’s job, all we have to do is make a call and we get access.”
McElfresh said that he is not so sure a new state law regulating exotic animals will make much of a difference.
“There are people that have been in the public eye who will register their animals, but I believe there are people who have them who will not,” McElfresh said.
Stalf disagreed, though.
Through the horror of last year’s events on the Thompson far, Stalf said, Thompson actually helped Ohioans.
“In the end, he actually helped Ohioans help the animals,” Stalf said. “We looked at it and said we have to have guidelines. We have to help people. It’s not about property. It’s about welfare. It’s about safety. We are ensuring the public is safe and the animals are cared for.”
Blake said that he hoped no one else would have to ever respond to a situation like the ones his deputies encountered last October.
“It’s been almost a year, and I can honestly say there’s not been a day that’s gone by that I don’t think about it,” Blake said. “I just keep reliving it. I just keep thinking about what happened.”
Thompson’s widow, Marian Thompson, broke her silence earlier this month, and explained that she was writing a book about the events of the horrific night in Zanesville.
“Reflecting on my thoughts is offering me some peace of mind in the midst of losing 49 beings that were the heart and soul of my existence,” Thompson wrote in an email to 10TV’s Kristyn Hartman. “Whether you are an exotic animal owner or simply an animal lover, you share my sentiments that these special creatures of nobility can exist in a caring, safe environment with love and devotion to their preservation.”
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