The Zanesville Animals

Six months after Terry Thompson released 50 of his exotic animals, the five remaining surviving animals are home.

The Zanesville animals are heading home. Two leopards, two Celebes macaque monkeys, and a bear will return to the farm where, only six months ago, Terry Thompson released fifty other exotic animals, killed himself, and forced Muskingum County Sheriff’s deputies into a situation where they had to kill every loose animal they could find. (I wrote about the incident in our March issue.)

When Marian Thompson arrived the next morning, she begged Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, to leave the surviving animals with her. “Please don’t take my babies,” she said. But he convinced her they would be safer in a zoo. Soon enough, she changed her mind and filed a lawsuit to get the animals back. The state put them under quarantine until they could make sure the animals did not have diseases (there was concern when the animls were freed that one of the monkeys had Hepatitis B), but they lacked authority to keep them indefinitely. This morning, Marian Thompson arrived at the Columbus Zoo to reclaim her animals.

The big question: Is this good or bad news for the animals?

Marian and Terry have a history of letting their animals live in worrying conditions. In 2008, the Muskingum Couny Sheriff’s department accompanied officials from a nearby nature preserve as they inspected the Thompson’s cages. What they found was appaling. Some of the cages had plywood floors. Others had fences that the wild cats could easily jump. Some of the cages were held together with nylson zip ties. Others were held by gates made for dog kennels, not lions or bears. Some of the animals exhibited signs of fly strike. Others were thin and had tremors. In short, the cages were hardly safe. The Thompsons agreed to fix them. They held a work party. Friends helped reinforce cages, extend fences, and update the facilities to the satisfaction of deputies.

Within a few years, though, conditions worsened again. One friend who visited the Thompson farm in 2010 reported that one adult lion was secured by only a three or four foot high snow fence in the backyard. To make matters worse, Terry had used a bolt cutter to cut large, gaping holes in the fences when he released his animals last October.

Despite all of this, Marian wanted the animals back and she wanted to keep them in the very same cages. “A limited number of cages were harmed during the incident and there are plenty of alternative cages to safely secure the few remaining animals,” her attorney Bob McClelland wrote to the state during the legal back and forth of the past six months. Lacking any legal authority to hold the animals further, the state relented. (Ohio’s laws remain some of the most relaxed in the country regarding exotic animal sale and ownership—and legislation to update the laws only recently made any progress.)

Legally, Marian deserves her animals. And I suspect emotionally, she needs them. But that doesn’t mean her ownership is in their best interest. By all accounts, the Thompsons loved their animals. But they housed them in, at best, only passable conditions. The zoo seems an infinitely better option. They have vetrinarians on site. They are subject to public observation and regulations. They are cared for by people who spent years learning how to properly care for wild creatures in captivity. (To be fair, one of the leopards died on the zoo’s watch.)

Ultimately, the tragedy today is not that Marian was reunited with her animals. It’s that the same law that allowed Terry to accumulate so many animals in the first place has now allowed them to return.

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