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May 5, 2012

Ohio surviving exotic animals back on farm

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio zoo on Friday returned five surviving exotic animals to a woman whose husband released dozens of wild creatures last fall before he committed suicide.

Two leopards, two primates and a bear have been held at the Columbus zoo since October. State officials had ordered the animals be quarantined on suspicion of infectious diseases.

Ohio’s agriculture director lifted the order on Monday, and Marian Thompson of Zanesville, who had appealed the order, retrieved the animals Friday from the zoo.

Thompson took them back to the eastern Ohio farm where her husband released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — before he committed suicide. Authorities killed 48 of the animals, fearing for the public’s safety.

Distinctive in a bright pink shirt and dark pants, Thompson arrived at a loading area at the zoo close to 10:30 a.m., driving a pickup truck pulling a silver horse trailer.

Growling noises could be heard as the two leopards were loaded by hand into the horse trailer in wooden-looking crates. A forklift loaded a steel cage, likely carrying the bear. Thompson put her hand on the cage and appeared to be talking to the animal inside as it was put into the trailer.

The monkeys, contained in smaller carriers about the size of those used to transport dogs, were loaded inside the backseat of the cab of the truck, with the windows rolled down. Thompson ignored shouted questions from nearby reporters.

Several zoo staffers, including veterinarians and keepers, watched the transfer, with some taking video and still photos. Two United States Agriculture Department inspectors were also on hand with cameras.

Medical results released last week showed all five animals were free of the dangerously contagious or infectious diseases for which they were tested.

Thompson previously tried to get the animals back from the zoo, but the quarantine prevented her from taking them.

Now that she has the animals, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check on their welfare or require improvements to conditions in which they are kept. The state’s agriculture department says it will be up to local authorities to be alert to their caretaking.

“Ohio has done everything in its power to keep local officials informed throughout this process to ensure they had as much information as possible in advance of this threat returning to their backyard,” said David Daniels, the state’s agriculture director.

The suicide of Thompson’s husband, Terry Thompson, the animals’ release Oct. 18 and their killings led lawmakers to re-examine the state’s restrictions on exotic pets, which are considered some of the nation’s weakest.

Daniels said in a written statement that the animals’ health had improved since they arrived at the zoo.

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said there was not a lot local authorities can do. But “At the first complaint we have, we’ll follow up,” he said.   

Of the animals that Terry Thompson released, three leopards, two Celebes macaques and a bear survived and were taken to the Columbus zoo. One spotted leopard had to be euthanized at the zoo in January. The macaques are small primates; the female weighs about 6 pounds, and the male weighs more than 10 pounds.

The zoo said it raised more than $44,000 in online donations to help care for the animals, though the actual cost was not known.

Thompson’s lawyer has told the state’s agriculture department that his client has adequate cages for the surviving animals. Multiple messages left for Robert McClelland have not been returned.

Others have questioned conditions at the farm, including Tom Stalf, the Columbus zoo’s chief operating officer.

Stalf, who was at Thompson’s the day of the Zanesville release, said the primates taken in the zoo had been held in separate, small bird cages, and the brown bear was kept in a cage that wasn’t fit for its size.

“There was feces on the floor, in the cages,” Stalf said. “You could not get a fresh breath.”

Cyndi Huntsman, a friend of Thompson’s, has told The Associated Press that Thompson had cleaned the cages and put up a 10-foot perimeter fence around where the exotic animals are going to be kept.


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