The Strange, Sordid Tale Of The Zanesville Zoo Escape

In 1977, Terry Thompson bought a tiger cub named Simba for his wife; it was the beginning of the end. Terry and his wife had acquired dozens of exotic animals by the time of his demise on October 18th, 2011. Almost all of the exotic animals were unleashed on the rural town of Zanesville, OH. Thompson, experiencing what many thought at the time to be mental health break, ended his own life after releasing 49 of the 56 exotic animals in his collection. In the following chaos, all 49 were slain; 18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three cougars, two wolves, one baboon, and one macaque.

The Zanesville tragedy had such an impact on the general public that the legislation regarding keeping exotic animals as pets was changed within a year, putting stricter regulations on owners. In the aftermath of the sad turn of events, one local made a profound observation: "I don't like animals but I would never hurt one. The animal lovers are the ones that hurt them." After this tragic loss, the concept of keeping exotic animals as pets changed dramatically in American society. 

  • There Were Warning Signs Something Was Very Wrong

    Terry Thompson was a Vietnam veteran; during his time in the military he had seen things that, his childhood friends say, changed him deeply as a person. He was also a gun enthusiast and salesman, and in 2008 his home was raided by the federal government; more than 100 weapons were seized and Thompson spent a year behind bars. When he got out, he began having problems with his wife of 40 years. 

    The animals were being kept in foul conditions, which shocked first responders responding on the day of the incident. Thompson had also been reportedly experiencing financial problems, which had led to a lack of proper care for the animals. 

    In the weeks leading up to the events of the day, he was quoted by multiple people as saying things that implied he was going to take his life, and possibly that of his wife. 

  • Thompson Took His Own Life After Releasing As Many Animals As He Could

    When a lion and bear were seen roaming freely around the community, Thompson's neighbors attempted to reach him by phone. He didn't answer. By that point, Thompson had released 49 of his 56 exotic animals before taking his life. 

    Thompson had used bolt cutters to open the cages, setting his collection of beautiful but dangerous beasts free. 

  • Law Enforcement Officers Were Given The Order To Take Any Action Necessary

    Police received a call from Terry Thompson's neighbor about a loose bear and lion. After that call, the evening descended into complete chaos. Officers ended up fatally slaying all the escaped animals, one right after the other. The accounts of the evening capture the panicked atmosphere and the seriousness of the situation:

    "An African lioness crawled under the livestock fence and ran south down the road then headed toward someone's home, so he [took her out] before she could go farther. Then, he turned back, intending to deal with a black bear and a tiger along the roadway, but he was distracted by a cougar heading south, so he followed the cougar into another driveway where he met a male African lion coming the other way. He [took out] the lion while some other deputies [dealt with] the cougar. Soon he was instructed to patrol the border between the Thompson property and Interstate 70, and over the evening, he [took out] another wolf, two more lions, a tiger, and - later on, after its hiding place was revealed by a thermal-imaging camera - a grizzly bear. That's what it was like."

  • One Of The Animals Attacked Thompson Post-Mortem

    When Terry's body was first spotted, there were still big cats close enough to him to prevent law enforcement from getting too close. They were feeding on their owner. Thompson had several wounds across his body that added an entirely new layer to the crime scene.

  • Staff From The Columbus Zoo Tried To Join In With Tranquilizers To Reduce The Carnage, But They Were Too Late

    Upon receiving the call that Thompson's animals were loose, staff at the Columbus Zoo rushed to get their gear together and drive over to his farm. He had been known to them for years, and they knew how grave a potential escape could be. 

    When they arrived with their tranquilizing equipment, however, it was too late. Half of the animals had already been put down, and the fact that the animals had been released right before sundown added another problem.

    "You cannot tranquilize an animal like this, a bear or a leopard or a tiger [at night]... If you do that, the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have [police officers] in danger of losing their life, and other people." Jack Hanna said in an interview right after the incident.

  • Animals Were Arranged Alongside One Another To Help Law Enforcement Officers Keep Track

    Photographs were taken of the property the morning after, and prompted cries of outrage from around the world. Animal lovers were absolutely heartbroken to see the photograph of the deceased bears, wolves, and big cats laid out side by side. Law enforcement officers had laid them out that way to help themselves keep track of the numbers as the chaos unfolded; it had seemed like the easiest way for them to see, by species, how many animals were still loose.