COLUMBUS, Ohio — Six exotic animals that were among dozens freed by their suicidal owner and survived a big-game hunt by sheriff's deputies with shoot-to-kill orders will be kept under quarantine at a zoo for now instead of going to his widow, the state Department of Agriculture ordered Thursday.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was trying to stop Marian Thompson from reclaiming three leopards, two primates and a young grizzly bear that have been cared for by the zoo since last week, when owner Terry Thompson mysteriously set them and other wild animals including tigers and lions free in a rural area of eastern Ohio. The other animals were killed by each other or by sheriff's deputies armed with high-powered rifles.
The zoo said it had Marian Thompson's permission to care for the six surviving animals, which have been kept separate from other animals, but has no legal rights to them. A veterinary medical officer for the Department of Agriculture looked at the animals and determined they needed to remain quarantined as allowed by Ohio law, which provides for the agriculture director to quarantine animals while investigating reports of potentially dangerous diseases.
The announcement came after Gov. John Kasich, upon learning the widow planned to retrieve the animals, asked the agency to ensure they didn't pose a health threat.
Kasich, a Republican, earlier this year let expire an order that might have prevented the Thompsons from owning exotic animals. Last week he signed a temporary order to use existing laws to crack down on such animals before new laws are proposed.
The Department of Agriculture said it was concerned about reports that the animals had lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease, and the order provides a chance to investigate their health. It prevents the zoo from releasing them until it's clear they're free of dangerous diseases.
A zoo official said Thursday that Terry Thompson had housed animals in tiny muddy shelters made of plywood, many without roofs. The grizzly bear was kept in an enclosure "about the size of a parrot cage," while the monkeys were found in a similar-size cage, chief operating officer Tom Stalf said.
"The facility was small with many, many animals – too many for them to care for," Stalf said.
It appeared Marian Thompson had planned to take the animals back to the farm near Zanesville, Department of Agriculture spokesman Andy Ware said.
Thompson and her lawyer were informed of the order when they arrived at the zoo with a big truck on Thursday afternoon. The order is indefinite, but Thompson is entitled to a hearing within 30 days if she wants to appeal. Her attorney was traveling with her and could not be reached for comment.
Zoo president Dale Schmidt said Thompson and her lawyer "expressed that they feel these animals belong to her and she wants to exercise her rights."
The animals have appeared healthy, perhaps a bit underweight, but the zoo did not conduct its standard medical tests because it doesn't own the creatures, Schmidt said.
"These animals are the innocents in this situation, and our job is to really take care of them as much as we can and make sure their welfare is looked out for," he said.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets, and efforts to strengthen the regulations have taken on new urgency since Terry Thompson opened the cages at his farm last week, freeing four dozen animals and then committing suicide.
Officers were ordered to kill the animals, including rare Bengal tigers, instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said his office isn't taking a stance on whether the creatures should return to Zanesville but was evaluating that option.
"If she wants to bring them back here, to this farm, then we're working on what we're allowed legally to do to make sure that everything is safe and appropriate," Lutz said.
Resident Sam Kopchak, whose property abuts the Thompsons', said he has mixed feelings about whether Marian Thompson should get the animals back, because he found himself standing about 30 feet from an escaped lion before it was killed. He said he feels for Thompson and recognizes her loss but would prefer not to have exotic animals as neighbors.
"I'd rather them not be here after what I experienced because of having the animals being out in the situation we were in," he said Thursday. "And I think most of the neighbors around here would probably say the same thing."
It's not unusual for Ohio to issue an animal health quarantine, and it does so about 150 times annually, said Ware, the agriculture spokesman.
Until earlier this year, Ohio was under an executive order that banned the buying and selling of exotic animals, but the newly elected Kasich let it expire, saying the regulations were not enforceable. Last week he put in place temporary measures to crack down on private ownership. A study committee has until Nov. 30 to draft permanent legislation.
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.