Police Hunting Dozens of Exotic Animals That Escaped From Ohio Animal Farm

A dead lion lays near the fence at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, Ohio.

Dozens of exotic animals escaped from a wild-animal perserve in a rural area in eastern Ohio where the owner was found dead on Tuesday, prompting police officers armed with assault rifles to launch a massive hunt for the wandering animals.

Three school districts in the Zanesville, Ohio, area closed for the day, and classes were also cancelled at some private and special schools as the remaining big cats, bears, and other wild beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm were hunted down. Along the highways, flashing signs warned "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle".

Police have not revealed how the farm's owner Terry Thompson died, but did note that it was not suspicious.

Police found that the animals' cages had been opened and the farm's fences were left unsecured. The animal preserve featured lions, tigers, wolves, giraffes, cheetahs, camels, and bears. There were sightings of exotic animals near a local highway, and police say that wolves and beras were amonst the escaped animals that were killed.

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said the animals are "mature, very big, aggressive."

On Tuesday, about 30 of the 48 animals were shot and killed. Police are trying to determine how to dispose of the remains. More than 50 law enforcement officials patrolled the 40-acre farm and surrounding area in cars and trucks on Tuesday, stating that they were concerned that the big cats and bears could be hiding in the dark and in trees.

Lutz said that his office began receiving phone calls around 5:30pm on Tuesday that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under I-70. Four deputies armed with assault riffles went out to the animal preserve in a pickup truck, where they found Thompson dead and all the cage doors open. Lutz didn't say how he died, but noted that several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived, which they then shot.

Thompson also had orangutans and chimps inside is home, but those were still in their cages. Deputies said that they saw many other animals standing outside of their cages and others that escaped past the fencing surrounding the property. Deputies began shooting at them on sight.

The Columbus Zoo sent staffers to the farm, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals.

According to a neighbor, Thompson had been having legal troubles regarding the animals and police said that he had recently gotten out of jail.

The state of Ohio has some of the country's most lenient and weakest restrictions on owning exotic pets, but it also has the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. The Humane Society of the United States urged Ohio lawmakers on Wednesday to immediately issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of dangerous wild animals.