COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - A deputy sheriff shot dead an aggressive bear that got within a few feet of him as police confronted dozens of dangerous animals set loose by a collector who then killed himself, authorities said on Thursday.
The bear was one of the first animals put down as deputies hunted 56 lions, tigers, bears and other beasts freed on Terry Thompson’s Zanesville, Ohio, farm, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz.
The bear, which was “showing aggressive behavior,” got within 7 feet of the deputy, Lutz said, one of several instances of close encounters his deputies had with the animals. Lutz said the aggressive animal was a factor in his decision to issue a shoot-to-kill order.
Thompson, 62, an exotic animal collector, set off a panic in the Zanesville area by freeing the animals before killing himself with a gun. An autopsy showed Thompson’s head was bitten by one of the animals, likely a big cat, shortly after he committed suicide, Lutz said.
The last of the animals that was unaccounted for, a macaque monkey, may have been eaten by one of the big cats,
The sheriff would not speculate on Thompson’s motive in releasing the animals, which prompted alarm in the rural Ohio community, with schools ordered closed and residents told to stay indoors as deputies hunted down the beasts.
The sheriff said no note was found with Thompson’s body. Thompson and his wife had been living apart, the sheriff said.
Thompson was released late last month from a year-long prison sentence for violating federal gun laws, according to the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbus.
Police said they visited the farm more than 30 times since 2004 after complaints about loose or mistreated animals, and Thompson was charged several times with animal cruelty.
Of the 56 animals in the menagerie, 49 were killed and buried on the farm. Three leopards, a young grizzly bear and two macaque monkeys were recaptured and sent to the Columbus Zoo animal hospital, where a spokeswoman said they were doing well.
The fresh remains of a monkey on the farm suggested that the big cats killed and devoured it, leading authorities to believe the missing monkey may also have been consumed.
Lutz defended his order to shoot to kill the animals, which included 18 Bengal tigers and several adult lions.
“It was a terrible situation, incredibly chaotic,” Lutz said.
There was only an hour of daylight left when deputies arrived; they used sidearms and rifles to shoot the animals.
It was not known where Thompson acquired the animals, Lutz said, which once included camels and a giraffe.
Two Ohio state legislators proposed legislation on Thursday that would sharply restrict private ownership of dangerous exotic animals.
“Most private citizens do not have the proper training or resources to take care of wild animals ... which poses a danger to themselves as well as other community members, said Democratic state representative Debbie Phillips.
The proposal allows existing owners with federal licenses to keep their animals but owners must register them with the state and embed microchips in them in case of escape.
The Humane Society of the United States said Ohio is among several U.S. states that do little to regulate exotic animal ownership.
Additional reporting by Karen Pierog; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Greg McCune