Where the Wild Things Were

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ENVIRONMENT OCTOBER 11, 2012

Where the Wild Things Were

Did police tell the whole truth about Zanesville, Ohio's infamous animal slaughter?

The following is excerpted from the Byliner Original Rough Beasts.

Near 5:30 p.m. on October 18, 2011 -- the day the world’s remaining wildness seemingly died in Zanesville, Ohio, of all places -- Sergeant Steven Blake, of the Muskingum County sheriff’s department, inched his patrol cruiser up toward the brick farmhouse at 270 Kopchak Road and sounded his horn. A simple knock on the front door would have been standard procedure for verifying the whereabouts and well-being of any local citizen. But as Sergeant Blake well knew -- and as much of the rest of the world was about to discover -- the sixty-two-year-old owner of the home was anything but your average citizen.

“Upon arrival at the Terry Thompson residence … ,” as Blake later recounted in his official report, “I noticed that there were several animals running loose including … lions, a mountain lion, a tiger, and black bears. It appeared as if the doors of [their] pens were opened." By the end of the next day, fifty animals would be dead: eighteen tigers, seventeen lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, two wolves, a baboon, and a macaque. At that point, however, Blake's visit didn't seem that different than countless others he and his fellow officers had made to Thompson's place to ask him to rein in another reported stray.

Blake had first arrived at the locked front gate of the seventy-three-acre farm belonging to Thompson and his estranged wife, Marian, some fifteen minutes earlier and immediately confirmed a neighbor’s complaint about seeing a bear and an African lion loose just inside the property’s outer-perimeter fence. This being a not altogether unusual occurrence at 270 Kopchak, Blake first tried phoning up to the house, set at the top of a hill about a half-mile in from the road. 

Few people, not even longtime neighbors, knew just how many exotic animals the Thompsons had at their place. But it was hardly a secret that they had them. Whenever Terry and his high school sweetheart, Marian, transported their prizewinning Percheron draft horses and Arabian stallions to state fairs or local 4-H club events, he would invariably bring along a tiger, a lion, or a bear cub. He’d bring them to his wife’s riding classes, to her school, and to other area schools and hospitals for kids to pet and play with. And insofar as the Thompsons didn’t charge people admission to view their menagerie, they were not bound by any government regulations and only subject to visits from local authorities in the wake of complaints, like the very one the police were responding to that evening.

Sergeant Blake sounded his horn in front of the house a few more times, then slowly steered his cruiser back through the tensile thicket of surrounding animal stares. Moments later, John Moore, the Thompsons’ animal caretaker, arrived to do a nightly feeding. When Moore insisted that Thompson must be somewhere on the premises, Blake had him get in his cruiser, and the two drove back up the hill to search the house.

The disparity between John Moore’s perspective on the scene unfolding that evening and Sergeant Blake’s could not have been more stark. Moore, a longtime friend of Terry Thompson’s and full-time caretaker for the past eight years, had helped the Thompsons raise all the beasts in their menagerie. An exotic-animal owner himself who is currently working toward a degree in wildlife zoology at Ohio University, Moore felt surrounded by outsize loving pets whose dispositions, both physical and behavioral, were utterly familiar to him. As for Sergeant Blake, he felt, well, only surrounded.

“He was scared to death,” recalled Moore, who until our conversation, nearly a year later, had refused to speak with anyone in the media on record about the events of that night. “It was kind of funny. At one point I needed to get the officer into the house so we could look for Terry. I had to raise the garage door, and the officer follows right behind me, and there are two male lions I had to move out of the way to get to the side door. The officer handed me his shotgun, and I told him, ‘What do I need that for?’ I just went up and grabbed the lions by their manes and moved them out of the way. I had bottle-fed those cats in the house. If I’m standing there telling you that these lions will not hurt you, do whatever you have to do, then I’m telling you from experience. I said, ‘I’m not going to endanger your life.’ I would never, ever put anyone’s life in danger.”

It wasn’t until Blake and Moore had started back down the entrance road that they happened to spot the lifeless body of Terry Thompson. He was lying flat on his back off to the side of a dirt drive between the rear of his house and an adjacent barn, the top of his head blown open, his pants pulled down below his knees, his underwear completely shredded, his inner thighs and genitals gone. One of the eighteen adult tigers that he and Marian had raised from cubs stood by his fallen master, alternately guarding over and feeding upon him. Chicken parts were scattered across the drive. Alongside the body lay the pair of blue bolt cutters Thompson had used to open some of his animals’ cages, as well as the stainless-steel Ruger .357 Magnum revolver with which he had shot himself through the roof of his mouth, thus setting in motion a widening gyre of pending disaster: The fully grown versions of those once-cuddly fairground cubs were now wandering loose around the collapsed core of the only world they had ever known.

With darkness fast descending, the carnage would soon begin and persist well through the following day’s relentless rains. Pickup trucks with flatbeds full of rifle-bearing officers and SWAT teams roamed the property and its perimeters, dropping one by one the members of what the press was soon dubbing Thompson’s “fierce menagerie,” even as a team of detectives, guarded by armed marksmen, began processing Thompson’s body. Authorities soon began stacking the bodies by the Thompsons’ house in order to keep track of an ever-mounting tally that would ultimately reach forty-nine. (The missing macaque, infected with the herpes B virus, was later presumed to have been eaten by one of the tigers.)

“It’s like Noah’s Ark wrecking right here in Ohio,” a dazed Jack Hanna kept repeating, “and all the wild animals came running out.”

In the year since the gunshots and the media blare, however, a clearer picture has begun to emerge of why Terry Thompson would go to such lengths to scuttle an ark that he and Marian had worked so long and hard to build together. And why local law enforcement may not have gone to nearly the lengths they claim they did to save at least some of the 50 bewildered beasts that were killed on that gruesome night: not fierce predators so much as an assemblage of suddenly animate and deeply disoriented oriented carousel animals whose creators had deserted them.

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THE OFFICIAL VERSION OF events was essentially that Thompson had used his bolt cutters to open up the sides of the majority of the cages, thus leaving the officers no choice, with darkness falling, but to shoot all the animals. Various officers claimed that they had first attempted to secure some of the doors to the cages that still had animals inside, but those creatures escaped through the holes that had been cut in the sides.

“That’s a lie,” said John Moore, the only civilian witness in those critical early hours. “There were only three cages that were cut open, and only one of the cats in them came out. The white tiger that was lying beside Terry. I personally locked two of the cats inside their cages while we were still looking around for Terry. Just walked up and locked their doors. They got shot. Another cat, named Jocelyn—she was in one of the cages that had been cut, but she stayed inside. She was in the far back corner. She was pregnant. She was nesting. She was ready to have her cubs. And they shot her.”

Moore said he saw six cats in locked cages get shot, as well as twelve others that were under a year old—cats he told me he could have easily leashed and led back to safety. He said he repeatedly asked to be allowed to collect some of the loose animals, that he felt he could save at least half of the forty-nine that were killed but was ordered to stand aside.

“They told me ‘This is a Muskingum County sheriff department situation.’” Moore recalled. “‘We’ll deal with it.’ The sheriff’s department had been after these animals for years. They knew how many of them were up there.”

Moore was warned that he’d be handcuffed and put in the back of a cruiser if he didn’t stay where he was told and give them all the information they needed about the animals.

“Now, am I mad at the sheriff’s department?” Moore said. “No. It took me a while to learn that. When it first happened, I was furious. I was upset that they didn’t allow me to do anything. But in their minds they had fifty carnivores getting out, they didn’t know what direction they were going in, and they had public safety to think about. They weren’t taking any chances. So the sheriff department’s version of things is just going to be different from mine. The next day was harder for me than anything. I had to stand in the middle of all those dead cats, and I had to identify every one of them. When you feed them every day and you water them and play with them and they respond to your love for them and love you back, how hard do you think that is?”

Sheriff Lutz, for his part, seemed totally taken aback by Moore’s account of events that night.

“This is the first I've heard of any of this,” said Lutz, who spent the majority of that night down at the Moose Lodge command post. “It's not in any of the reports I've seen from any of the people I had up there. I'm not going to say that what he's telling you is a lie. What I am telling you is that this is the first accusation of wrongdoing by my people that I've heard and why he wouldn't have reported this earlier I have no idea.”

After the fact, many wondered why the animals couldn’t have been tranquilized or why a citywide curfew wasn’t enforced in order to get people safely indoors and give wildlife-control personnel the time to bring the situation under control. Former police officer Tim Harrison, who by himself has peaceably reined in more escaped exotic animals than all the law-enforcement officers in the state of Ohio, would arrive on the scene some three hours after the initial shooting had begun and spend the rest of the night patrolling the perimeter of the Thompsons’ land with a deputy.

“Even if the sheriffs had tranquilizer rifles in their cars,” Harrison pointed out, “they’d have to know how to dart. I do that all the time. You have to assess the size and weight of the animals as they’re running around in the dark, guess the right amount of medication, and inject it into the dart. Then, if you manage to hit the animal in the right spot, it still takes fifteen to twenty minutes for the drugs to take effect. That’s a lot of time with a tiger charging you or with the woods nearby for the cat to disappear into and then wake up later. People are crazy to think these animals could have been tranquilized.”

Excerpted with permission from the Byliner Original Rough Beasts: The Zanesville Zoo Massacre, One Year Later by Charles Siebert. The short e-book is available for $2.99 as a Kindle Single at Amazon, a Quick Read at Apple’s iBookstore, a Nook Snap at BN.com, a Short Read at Kobo, and at Google Play.

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posted in: environment and energy, environment, zanesville, jack hanna, john moore, marian, steven blake, terry thompson, ohio, ohio university

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