Terry Thompson knows all 56 of his animals by name. There is Solomon, the white tiger. There is Jocelyn, the pregnant tiger. Elsa, the lioness cub that puts her paws on the counter to snatch a piece of meat. Simba, the very first lion Terry ever owned, the one he bought as a sickly cub 14 years ago.
It’s October 18 and fall has begun. The temperature barely breaks 60 degrees and the leaves on the oak and maple trees surrounding Terry’s farm are about to turn a riot of red, yellow, umber, and purple. Terry has seen many seasons on this farm. He’s 62 now, and stands five feet and five inches—a stocky, unkempt figure with a barrel chest, shaggy forearms, and a beard and mustache going gray. The last few years have not been easy ones. To put it bluntly, his small, isolated world has collapsed and the stress has become too much to handle. So he’s made a decision. He steps out of the kitchen door and into the garage wearing only a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap despite the slight autumnal chill. In one hand he holds a handgun; in the other, a pair of blue bolt cutters.
The stretch of gravel and grass running out from the garage looks more like a tunnel beneath the Roman Colosseum than a small Ohio farm. Fifty-six animals—including wolves, black bears, mountain lions, monkeys, leopards, lions, and tigers—loll and pace inside more than 30 cages that line 270 feet of the driveway, all the way out to the decrepit barn.
The animals watch as he approaches the first cage in the garage. They know Terry, know that he sometimes talks to them, likes to step up to a bear’s cage and put his face against the fencing for a kiss. He unlatches the first door and pulls it open. He kneels to the ground, eye level with the tigers, and pinches a piece of chain link fence with the bolt cutters. He snips one wire. Then another. In a minute or two, there is a gaping, three-foot hole. He moves to the black bear, wolf, and grizzly cages outside. He opens their doors and cuts more holes. Then it’s on to the mountain lions. Free. More tigers. Free. As he moves, the traffic on Interstate 70 hums along the north edge of his property, just down the hill and beyond the collection of old hot rods and cars that line his fence like rusty gravestones.
Terry climbs onto his green John Deere and starts it up. The newly freed animals follow behind. They know the tractor means food. He drives it toward another cage and uses the front loader to lift its heavy door. Then he shuts the ignition off with the door held high, climbs down, and cuts a hole in the chain link as grizzly bears wander around him. He keeps moving, cage by cage, releasing two wolves, six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon, a monkey, three mountain lions, 17 lions, and 18 tigers. The animals linger along the driveway; a few chew on the raw chicken Terry has tossed in the dirt.
Now he walks through the grass back toward the house. Clouds threaten rain. Terry stops to watch the animals he has raised and loved for 14 years—some moving down the hill toward his dozens of horses, some stretching in the driveway, some running in the direction of the highway, others slipping back into their cages. Then he raises his hand, places the barrel of a .357 Ruger revolver against the roof of his mouth, and takes his own life.
Terry Thompson loved animals from the time he was a kid growing up on his family farm on Boggs Road, east of Zanesville. His family—Terry and his sisters, Polly and Sherry—had horses, as did Dick Lear and his sister, Beryl, who lived just down the road. They spent their childhoods feeding them, shoveling out their stalls, standing quietly by while the vet checked a horse’s mouth or put on a new shoe. Marian Sharp, a girl who lived on Newark Road about five miles away, also had horses. Her mother was the local 4-H advisor and every summer the kids showed horses at the county fair as their parents watched from the grandstand.
Terry and Marian could tell what a horse was thinking with just a look. And they could do the same with each other, too. They started dating in high school and stayed together for more than 40 years. You rarely saw one of them without the other, friends said. They were only really apart twice. The first time was during the Vietnam War, when Terry was drafted. The second time would be 42 years later, when Terry spent a year in prison.
Terry grew up fascinated by flight. As a kid, he rode his bike under the shadows of I-70 to the Zanesville airport, where he watched planes rumble down the runway and lift gracefully over his head. He was an airport kid. He liked the speed of planes, the rush of flying. Vietnam gave him the chance to experience flight firsthand, and all the horrors that came with it. From January 26, 1969 to January 18, 1970, Private Terry Thompson served with the 155th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Coryell, a base near the Cambodian border. According to his military personnel file he was a mechanic, but he told friends he was a gunner on a Huey helicopter, the United States Army’s all-purpose tool of war. Through most of 1969, the 155th flew reconnaissance flights out of Camp Coryell, but that changed in late October when the North Vietnamese poured across the border by the thousands. They attacked for two months straight. The 155th evacuated men, brought supplies, and kept the enemy at bay. Helicopters were in the air constantly. Search-and-rescue, evacuation, air assault, troop transport—Terry said he’d done it all. Vietnam vets will tell you that the average Huey gunner only survived a few minutes of combat. Terry made it through an entire tour in one piece.
But he witnessed “horrible, ugly” things, and took part in them, too, according to Mike Marshall, a fellow airplane pilot and veteran who flew charter flights with Terry after the war. “Going into landing zones three, four, as many as 10 times to extract wounded soldiers. Just horrible, horrible carnage,” Marshall says.
It stayed with him. Forty years later, Terry came across a Vietnam-era helicopter parked at an airport near Zanesville, its fuselage pocked with bullet holes. He ran his fingers around one of them. “I saw five of these blow up in one second in Vietnam,” he told Dr. Bob Masone, a friend and owner of the chopper. “All those men, dead in a heartbeat.” Marshall, who served in the U.S. Marines and Air Force for three decades, felt that Terry suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lived with it for 40 years, Marshall says, “undiagnosed and untreated.”
But it was in Vietnam that Terry found something else—his first exotic pet. One day, a monkey wandered into camp and took a liking to him. He fed it, let it come near him. They became friends. He “absolutely loved that monkey,” Marshall recalls. When his tour ended, Terry wanted to bring it home, but of course the Army wouldn’t let him. “It broke his heart,” Marshall says.
When Terry came home after Vietnam, he and Marian picked up where they left off. Marian was petite, but she was tough and determined. She graduated from Ohio State University in 1973 and got a teaching job at Maysville Elementary, where she spent the next 30 years teaching sixth graders.
Terry bought a house a few miles northwest of town and helped his parents on their farm. In 1977, he and Marian got married, and he bought a Harley-Davidson dealership in nearby Coshocton. Marian taught school by day and helped Terry run the dealership on weekends. Two years later, Terry bought the Zanesville Harley-Davidson franchise and got a license to sell guns in the back of the shop. It was a normal life: a job, a business, a house outside of town.
But Terry had a wild side. While other returning vets got caught up in alcohol or drugs, Terry was an adrenaline junkie. He discovered it early—those long afternoons spent at the airport—and Vietnam fueled it. Once he was back in Ohio, he started flying planes, often with his friend Tom Ungurean, the owner of a local mining company. They flew single-engine Cessnas. Helicopters. Old World War II fighter planes like the P-51 Mustang.
It took a steady hand and nerves of steel to fly some of those old planes, but Terry was a natural. “I was never concerned. If I needed Terry to take the controls for whatever reason, he would be right there and could handle it just fine,” says Marshall, who flew with him hundreds of times over the years.
In the late ’80s, Terry got hooked on speedboats. He bought a long, thin, flat-bottom boat with a blown methanol dragster engine strapped to the rear. He named it Master Blaster and frequently flew west to California, Arizona, and Nevada to race. It was dangerous. (So dangerous, nobody races them today—and Terry did it before they added a windshield for safety.) “He sat way up on practically a lawn chair in the front of that thing, and they drag raced it down a quarter-mile stretch of water,” says Marshall. “It was like riding the end of a pencil.” Terry was good at it. He set a speed record at the time: 158 miles per hour in a quarter of a mile.
It was crazy, but then Terry was a little crazy. Sam Lovejoy Jr., who owned a tire shop across from the Harley dealership in Zanesville, remembers him driving a hovercraft right up Maysville Avenue in the south end—“dust flying everywhere.” All of Terry’s friends have a story like that. The time he landed his ultralight in the middle of the county fair. The time he flipped a vintage fire truck on the railroad tracks. The time he ran out of gas while flying and landed his plane in the median strip on I-70.
“He was ornery,” Lovejoy notes. “If he didn’t like you, he’d tell you. But he’d do anything in the world for you if he liked you.”
That’s the Terry his friends remember today. The Terry who helped put together a Noah’s Ark float with his animals for the Christmas parade. The Terry who convinced the Old Boy Bikers motorcycle club to donate proceeds from their annual bike show to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Dick Lear grew up with Terry and worked with Marian at the elementary school. He remembers how Terry landed his helicopter on the school baseball field on career day and talked about being a pilot. “The kids loved it when they saw the helicopter fly in,” says Lear. “I mean, shoot, I did too.”
Terry was a big-hearted guy that way. He wanted to help people. A few years ago, at a local fair, he noticed one of Beryl Dennis’s distant cousins showing horses. “He has a way with animals,” Terry told her. “If he ever wants to see the animals, tell him he can come out to the house. I’ll help him however I can.”
The first 911 call comes in at 5 p.m., October 18, 2011. Delores Kopchak’s property backs up to Terry’s on the road named after her family. “There’s a bear and a lion out,” she tells the dispatcher. “They’re chasing Terry’s horses.”
The Muskingum County Sheriff’s Department knows Terry has wild animals—they’re out there all the time when Terry’s horses get loose. Sergeant Steve Blake is the first to arrive. He immediately sees a black bear and two African lions on the loose and calls Terry at his house. No answer.
Deputy Jonathan Merry arrives next. He sees two black bears, a tiger, and a female lion running in Terry’s fields as he drives to Delores Kopchak’s home. He’s knocking on her door when a wolf runs by, heading south on Kopchak Road—the first animal to escape Terry’s property. Merry gets back in his car and chases the wolf. When it turns down a driveway to another home, he radios Blake. What should he do? Blake tells him to shoot any animal that leaves the property. Merry stops the car, gets his AR-15 rifle out of the trunk, and takes the wolf down.
As Merry is driving back to Terry’s farm he sees two other deputies running along the fence trying to keep a lion from escaping the property. He gets out to help. There’s a black bear already outside the fence, they warn him. Merry turns to look and sees the bear running for him at a dead sprint. It is almost on top of him. In a split second he draws his handgun and fires. The bear falls dead—seven feet away.
At 5:45, a call goes out on the radio: “If they’re out, put them down. If it’s close to the fence and it looks like it’s coming over, I don’t want it out.”
Along the fence, Merry sees another bear charge at a tiger lying in the grass. They stand to fight, both animals up on their rear legs, squaring off like two boys on a playground. The deputies shoot them both. As gunshots ring out and echo off the hills, the other animals panic. They may have been raised as domestic pets but instincts kick in with the sudden freedom, the gunshots, the chaos. They go wild.
Terry Thompson loved to collect things and didn’t like to let them go. When he got into motorcycles, he bought a dealership. When he got into guns, he got a license to sell them. When he started playing guitar, he bought one after another. He collected things until he hardly had room for it all.
In 1987, Terry bought a farm west of Zanesville. It was 76 acres of beautiful land. On the front half of the property, the pastures rolled over the foothills, two ponds forming in low spots between them. A split-level house sat high in the middle of it all, perched over a long driveway from Kopchak Road. Far behind the house, back in the trees, it felt like civilization was miles away.
Terry loved that farm. It was quiet and gave him the space he needed. He built a riding arena for Marian and the horses, and cleared enough brush for a runway back in the woods. His cars lined the yard, skeletons of ’57 Chevys and old dragsters. When he sold his Harley dealership, in 1991, he held on to his gun license and kept his collection in the basement. He still flew charter flights through Zanesville Aviation, but most of the time he fixed up hot rods or worked on engines at home. Some of his cars were worth a lot of money but he was choosy about selling them. If Terry loved something, he held onto it.
It’s not clear where he picked up his first lion but it’s likely he found it at the Alternative Livestock Auction in Mt. Hope, Ohio, about an hour away. Terry and Marian liked to take weekend drives north on state route 83 to buy a horse or just watch the animals at the auction ground. Three times a year, there is an exotic animal auction in Mt. Hope—one of a handful of sites in the United States where such sales occur.
Some states have relaxed laws regarding ownership of exotic animals; other states have loose sales laws. For decades, Ohio has had both. Exotic animals brought into Ohio had to be accompanied by a permit saying the animal was healthy, and those sold to a zoo or professional breeder required a permit to own, but private individuals who did not plan to make money off of the animals needed no such documentation. Someone like Terry could buy a lion, load it into his vehicle, and take it home. No questions asked. (On January 6, 2011, outgoing governor Ted Strickland issued an executive order that banned the ownership of exotic animals. The ban had a time limit—90 days—which Governor John Kasich let lapse. In the wake of the incident at the Thompson farm, a bill that would ban private ownership of exotic animals has been moving through the Ohio statehouse. However, more than 20 states still allow ownership of exotics, and a number allow their sale. At a September 2011 auction at the Lolli Bros. auction house in Macon, Missouri, for instance, Bengal tigers sold for $50 to $550.)
In 1997, Terry and Marian bought their first lion cub that way. The Thompsons were known for their ability to help horses with health and behavior issues, and the sickly lion apparently touched the same nerve. They named it Simba and nursed it back to health. For Terry, the two things he loved most—animals and the adrenaline rush that comes from living in close proximity to a 300-pound carnivore—had finally come together.
From 1997 to 2005, Terry added dozens of animals to his menagerie. He didn’t like money—he preferred to barter—so he might trade a gun or a car or an engine for “a monkey...a leopard...a baby tiger,” he told lawyers during a 2011 deposition. But most of the animals were given to the Thompsons. “Once you have an exotic animal, you’re somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals,” Marian stated in another hearing. (Marian Thompson declined to comment for this story. Her statements come from depositions and testimony related to gun charges filed against her husband in 2008, and from various Muskingum County Sheriff’s reports.)
Mike Marshall, who visited the Thompsons’ farm dozens of times in the past decade, guessed that more than half of the animals were given to the Thompsons when the owners couldn’t care for them anymore. Even when they had dozens to care for on their own, Terry found it hard to say no. “He was just that type of person,” says his friend Sam Lovejoy Jr.
Terry helped the animals, and the animals helped him with his undiagnosed PTSD. Andrew Brandi, a retired Marine sergeant who runs an animal sanctuary in New Mexico, knew Terry when they both lived in Zanesville in the 1980s. Brandi has worked with hundreds of Marines with PTSD over the years. He says that veterans grappling with the disorder “like to take care of something. We feel like taking care of these animals helps [us] heal, helps us give back some of the life that we’ve taken.”
Terry and Marian didn’t have children; in a sense, the animals became their family. Marian cared for the horses and gave riding lessons while Terry looked after Simba, and over time, the additional lions, bears, wolves, tigers, and monkeys they took in. Cages spread from their dilapidated horse barn up the driveway, into the garage, and even into the house, where they kept monkeys and cubs. The collection grew and grew.
At 5:30 p.m. on October 18, John Moore, a friend who has been helping Terry care for his animals for years, arrives for the evening feeding. He immediately sees something is wrong: Police cars block the gate to the property and animals are wandering around the Thompson’s beige, split-level home. Moore gets in a squad car with Sgt. Blake, who carefully drives up to the house. They go inside. Two Celebes macaque monkeys are in the living room in a cage, but there’s no sign of Terry. Heading back down the driveway, Moore sees a white tiger gnawing on a human body near the barn. It looks like Terry but they can’t tell if he’s dead or wounded, and there are too many animals pacing around the body for them to get closer.
Meanwhile, Deputy Merry shoots a male lion running down a neighbor’s driveway. When Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz arrives shortly after 5:30, he sends Merry and another deputy to help state troopers keep animals from reaching the highway. Lutz gives a general order: Any animal that is a threat or leaves the property should be shot.
As soon as Merry and the other deputy step out of their car they see two male lions running toward the highway. Merry shoots both of them, then turns in the opposite direction and sees a tiger prowling along the fence. Both deputies fire. When they turn back, one of the male lions gets up and lurches toward them. They fire again, killing it.
Out on Kopchak Road, Deputy Wade Kanavel shoots and kills another lion that jumps the fence. As soon as he fires on the African lion, a mountain lion runs up to him, hisses, and bares its teeth. He shoots it, too.
The animals are everywhere.
Terry didn’t know when to stop. By 2005, he was taking care of dozens of exotic animals and horses at his farm, in addition to the cows and buffalo at the Boggs Road farm he and his sisters inherited from his parents. His sisters wanted to sell the family farm, Terry told Mike Marshall, but he was sentimental. “The reason he had 130 cars, 130 motorcycles, 130 guns was because he never wanted to sell anything that he liked,” says Marshall. “And he liked that farm.”
But it was difficult tending to one farm, let alone two. The fences were in constant disrepair and horses routinely wandered into neighbor’s yards or out into the road. On his own farm, Terry had Rottweilers that once crossed into his neighbor Fred Polk Sr.’s property, where they killed a yearling calf. Terry apologized. “You’ll never see these dogs again,” he told Polk. Three days later, the dogs killed two more calves. “So we shot the dogs,” said Polk. “And boy, he went half-goofy.”
Though Terry collected and sold hundreds of guns, he was not a hunter. He hated death. So when Polk shot his dogs, he was grief-stricken. “He had a new pick-up and he picked these animals up and put them on the front seat, with all that blood,” Polk recalls. Then Terry dug a grave in front of his house and buried them.
Loose animals were not the only problem. In the spring of 2005, three cows on the Boggs Road farm died and Terry transported the carcasses to his place. A neighbor who thought they had starved to death called the Humane Society and the society paid a visit to the Thompson residence with sheriff’s deputies that April. According to the investigation report, Marian showed them a “dead hole” where they put deceased animals. The three dead cows and a myriad of bones and body parts were lying around. “Too many to count,” the report noted. Muskingum County Humane Society officer Beulah Hague collected legs from the dead animals to test for malnourishment.
While the dead cows may have been malnourished, Hague reported that the exotic animals looked healthy at the time of that visit. “We are just trying to save these animals,” Marian told a deputy, according to the report. But she seemed to realize they were near a tipping point. “I’m telling Terry, ‘No more,’” she added. The broken fences, the dying cows, the endless amount of work—Terry and Marian never complained to their friends about their animals but the strain was starting to show.
A few weeks later, Hague was checking up on the Boggs Road animals when she noticed a baby buffalo looking weak and tired. It died within days. Terry and Marian told deputies they were not to blame for the animal’s death, but the county prosecutor filed animal cruelty charges against Terry.
That November, Terry called the Muskingum County Health Department to report that raw sewage was running into a field on the Boggs Road farm from a neighbor’s septic system. Two health department officials drove out and Terry led them to a ditch with standing water on the property. This was why his cattle were dying, he told them. According to the sheriff’s report, Terry offered both officials $20,000 to drink the water. Neither accepted.
During the investigation, neighbors told the sheriff’s deputies that they didn’t think Terry was properly caring for the animals at the Boggs Road farm. Later that year, a jury convicted him of cruelty to animals and sentenced him to six months’ house arrest. After that, he agreed to sell his parents’ farm.
The sale hurt Terry, emotionally and financially. In 2007, when he and his sisters sold the Boggs Road farm, Terry was slapped with a $33,244.54 tax bill. Piled on top of what he already owed the IRS in back taxes, it raised his outstanding balance to more than $55,000.
Money wasn’t his only problem. No sooner had his animal cruelty trial ended than another investigation began—this one over his guns. After Terry closed up the Harley dealership in 1991, he sold guns out of his home until 2003, when he turned the license in to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). But the government suspected he was still in the gun business. In 2008, they sent a confidential informant wearing a wire into Terry’s home to buy guns—a Smith & Wesson .44 revolver and a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. Terry talked the entire time, every word captured on tape. He bragged he had sold an AK-47 a few days prior and reassured the informant he would never talk to the feds about selling guns. “They can hold a gun to my head and I will say absolutely positively nothing,” he told the informant.
On the morning of June 18, 2008, Marian was in the kitchen changing clothes—she had just finished feeding two lion cubs and a baby bear and needed to put on different clothes to feed the baby monkeys—when someone yelled through the kitchen door.
It wasn’t Terry. Instead the door burst open and more than a dozen ATF agents flooded the room with guns drawn. Marian—who was naked—managed to put one of Terry’s T-shirts on before they ordered her to sit on a chair outside on their patio. For the next five hours, ATF agents kept Terry in the back of one of the vehicles as they searched the premises. Marian asked to see the search warrant, but was refused. They didn’t allow her to put anything more than that T-shirt on, either.
Inside, the agents confiscated 133 guns and 36 bullets. But it was difficult to move through the house. In a 2011 deposition, Special Agent James Ash said that the basement was “impassable with everything from band equipment, to cases, to boxes...waist high.” (“My husband doesn’t put anything away,” Marian explained.) Things were worse on the first floor. The Thompsons kept their cats and bears and wolves outside once they were grown, but the baboons and macaque monkeys lived in cages in the living room where they destroyed anything within their grasp. “It was unsafe for us to breathe the air,” Ash stated.
While ATF agents removed the weapons, officials from the Columbus Zoo examined the animals. The list of grievances was long. One horse had a cut on its eye. Rotting meat and fecal matter lined the exotic cages. A baby leopard and poodle were kept in small cages in a storage room without food or water. One tiger was missing its tail. A grown bear and two lion cubs were housed in cages built for parrots. Some animals showed signs of flystrike, a condition in which fly larvae live and feed beneath the skin. Horses were tied away from water in the barn. Monkey feces was on the carpet and furniture in the house. One of the mountain lions had tremors.
The vet from the Columbus Zoo also discovered that Terry was breeding animals. He wasn’t in it for the money—“I’ve never sold an exotic animal,” he would later tell lawyers—but that didn’t stop him from letting his animals breed. Rescue facilities, admonished the vet, “do not breed the animals.”
Muskingum County Sheriff’s deputies brought in Dr. Barbara Wolfe, head veterinarian at The Wilds, a private animal reserve east of Zanesville, to provide a second opinion. She visited the Thompson farm two days after the ATF raid and found some health issues, though not nearly as many as the zoo vet. What her colleague Dan Beetem, director of animal management for The Wilds, found was much more urgent: Few of the cages were stable enough to keep animals from escaping. The floors of numerous cages were not secured; the plywood floor of one tiger’s cage was rotting; fences stood only eight feet high in some areas, low enough for a tiger to leap over; car batteries were being used to secure tarps on cage tops; and animals had chewed on the nylon straps that held some cages together.
The Muskingum County Sheriff’s office decided there was not enough evidence for an animal cruelty charge, but they did get a court order to make the Thompsons upgrade their cages. That was something the Thompsons had wanted to do for a while, Marian told deputies, “but had never taken the time to do.”
Friends organized a work party. They cleaned cages and reinforced the tops on all but one, which got new 12-foot fencing with a barbed wire turn-back. They built entirely new cages, in some cases. Satisfied that the cages had been sufficiently secured, the sheriff’s office had one final demand: If any of the animals ever got loose, the Thompsons were to call them immediately.
At 6:04 p.m. on October 18, the police radio squawks alive. “We have located the owner.” He looks dead, they say. A possible suicide. “Unknown for sure on that.”
With less than an hour of light left, Sheriff Lutz and his deputies decide they need to get to Terry. A group of deputies, among them Deputy Jay Lawhorne, get into the back of a pickup and drive up toward the barn. “We’re making entry to go check on this individual,” someone says. “We believe it’s a 16 [police radio code for dead on arrival]. We’re going to verify.”
As they approach they confirm that it’s Terry. He is flat on his back, his pants around his ankles, and a white tiger is chewing on his head. The tiger’s claws have scratched his face and body dozens of times, turning it over, dragging it. The tiger will not leave, so they are forced to shoot it. They have little choice. The tranquilizer guns have not yet arrived.
Looking through the scope on his M4 rifle, Lawhorne sees a handgun lying in the grass 15 feet from Terry. Next to it, the blue bolt cutters. But there are too many animals prowling near the body, so they steer the pickup around one side of the house. Some animals charge the truck while others run away from it, heading toward the edges of the property. It doesn’t matter. Whichever way they run, they are shot.
“I can hear you shooting down there. You need to be careful towards the house,” a deputy says over the radio. “We have units up there.” As the truck nears the back patio, the deputies see one grizzly in its cage and another bear climbing out of the empty pool and moving toward them. They shoot the free bear, but leave the caged one alone.
By 6:30 p.m., all members of the sheriff’s department’s Special Response Team are assembled. Lawhorne and several other deputies agree to guide them on foot to where Terry’s body lies. This time, they reach it. As the SRT helps detectives process the scene, taking photographs and measurements, Lawhorne and others approach a set of cages behind the barn where lions are normally kept. The doors are open but they cannot see inside. Reserve deputy Drake Prouty, who is unarmed, decides to reach into the cages, grab the doors, and yank them shut. He moves from pen to pen, and manages to pull four doors closed. But it’s dusk, and the deputies don’t see the holes cut in the sides of the cages. On the fifth and final door, a lion charges through one of the holes at Prouty. His colleagues are forced to fire at point blank range, killing it instantly.
That night, scenes from Zanesville begin to appear on television screens across the country. Sheriff Lutz and Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and a former student at Muskingum College (now University), spend hours in front of the cameras. Hanna seems close to tears, but he repeatedly backs the sheriff’s decision to shoot. It is dark. There are schools and homes in the neighborhood. “We could not have animals running loose in this county,” Lutz tells the media. “We were not going to have that.”
By 11:30, all the animals they can find are dead. Deputy Lawhorne and Deputy Adam Swope remain at the barn through the night to keep the area secure. It starts to rain. Thunder rolls through the hills and hollows. The occasional lightning strike illuminates the animals as the two men walk through the property, identifying the dead and dragging the bodies back up the hill toward the barn.
The next morning, deputies discover one last tiger hiding in the brush on the edge of the property. They don’t want to shoot the animal if they can help it, so they call in Barbara Wolfe to subdue it using a tranquilizer gun. Wolfe inches as close as she dares, then shoots. The tiger reacts violently, rearing and charging Wolfe, and the deputies open fire. Wounded, the tiger settles back in the brush, but when they approach it, it charges again. This time the deputies kill the tiger.
Marian arrives later that morning, just as the Columbus Zoo is taking the six surviving animals away—three leopards, a bear, and two monkeys. “Please don’t take my babies,” she pleads with Hanna. He tells her he will take care of them and she relents. (Five of the animals remain at the Columbus Zoo. One of the leopards was euthanized in late January after a zoo gate closed on the cat’s neck. Though Marian has asked to reclaim the five remaining animals, Ohio Agriculture Director James Zehringer issued a quarantine order that allows the zoo to keep the animals indefinitely.)
Deputies work with John Moore and Marian to determine how many animals were on the farm. They count them up: 18 tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, three leopards, three Celebes macaque monkeys, three grizzlies, two wolves, and one baboon. Six of them are taken to the Columbus Zoo. One monkey is missing but presumed to have been eaten by one of the big cats. Forty-nine are dead. Their hides are slick with mud and rain, their bodies laid out in rows, one on top of another—a tiger over a lioness, its tongue hanging free from its mouth, one large paw outstretched on the back of a wolf.
Marian asks and is given permission to bury them. She chooses a spot in a field south of the house and asks a friend to use his track hoe to dig a grave big enough to accommodate all of the animals. Into the ground they go, one heavy body at a time. Solomon, the white tiger. Elsa, the lioness cub. Simba, their first lion. She knows each animal by name.
Why did Terry Thompson do it? No one will ever really know. For a guy who had pushed the limits and lived a fiercely independent life, Terry had managed to stay out of serious trouble for decades. But in the last six years, trouble caught up to him.
First there was the animal cruelty charge. Then the sale of the family farm. Then the money he owed the IRS. And finally, the ATF raid. In 2009, a U.S. District judge suppressed evidence obtained during the ATF raid, saying the search violated Terry’s 4th amendment rights, only to reverse his own decision in February 2010 at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. Terry told Mike Marshall he could either pay to fight the government or pay to feed his animals. He chose the animals. That April he pled guilty to possessing unregistered weapons. (None of the weapons were illegal to own had they been registered; he was not charged with illegal sales of weapons.) On October 8, 2010, the judge sentenced him to 12 months and one day in prison.
Terry spent the next month on his farm with Marian and his animals. Bob Masone, a doctor who had met Terry when he performed his medical flight exam, visited him there that November.
It was a bright, sunny fall day, warm enough that Terry was shirtless when Masone landed his Vietnam-era helicopter in the pasture. Terry took Masone on a walking tour of the farm. They approached a cage holding six tigers, and Masone’s hand shook as he reached for his camera phone. “I had not been so close to such a powerful and beautiful animal in my life,” he recalls.
Each of the tigers came closer to Terry. At another cage, a mountain lion rubbed its cheek against his face through the fencing. Terry called to one grizzly, put his mouth to the cage, and asked for a kiss. The bear approached, stuck out his tongue, and licked Terry’s face. “I had a girlfriend who kissed me like that in high school,” he said.
At the back of the house Terry showed Masone a basset hound and grown lioness, chewing away at a large bone. “Doc,” Terry told him, “that basset hound and that lion sleep together touching every night.” They were kept on the back patio, surrounded by a three-foot-high, wooden fence in poor shape.
Inside Terry’s house, papers were scattered around the tile floor. Trophies and photos lined the wood mantle over the fireplace. One half of the living room was given over entirely to guitars and amplifiers, the rest to cages of monkeys and parts of a cushion ripped to shreds. A basket of laundry sat on an otherwise clean dining table.
“Wait here,” Terry said. “I got some tiger cubs I want to show you.” Terry returned holding a single cub already the size of a large house cat. It wriggled in his big hands. He told Masone there were four more cubs upstairs, all about three weeks old. He and Marian were feeding them “around the clock.”
“If I had one word that I could use to describe my visit on the farm,” Masone says, “it was love.”
Terry and Marian certainly did seem to love their animals. But two people can’t take care of 56 wild creatures, even with some friendly help. In the end the animals took over their lives.
Four days after Masone took off in his helicopter, Terry Thompson went to a federal minimum-security prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, leaving his wife to manage the farm and take care of the animals while he served his sentence. Terry was released on September 30, 2011. The problem was, Terry told his probation officer, Marian was gone when he got home. She had been taking a team of horses around to county fairs and horse shows since late spring, as she had for many years. But according to the sheriff’s report, Terry also told his probation officer that he and Marian were “having problems.”
“I think when he came back to all of that and the mess that he had in front of him...I think he just cracked,” Marshall says.
“He felt probably desperately alone and abandoned,” says Andrew Brandi. “At those times the war comes back very strong. His mind was unclear.”
A couple weeks later, on October 17, John Moore went by the farm to help Terry with the evening feeding. They refreshed water buckets and spread feed around the cages. In the sheriff’s report, Moore said Terry was upset about Marian but that he had “a plan.”
“And you will know it when it happens,” Terry told him.
Moore left. Terry was alone with the animals he loved. The next afternoon he walked into the garage. In one hand he held a handgun. In the other, bolt cutters.
Illustration by Teagan WhiteOriginally published in the March 2012 issue
Simply confirm your registered email address below and click "Reset Password." We will immediately email you a link back to the site where you can enter a new password for this account.
We've found your existing Cincinnati Magazine Insiders account. Please login below to complete the Facebook login process.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
In partnership with Marketron Interactive