By ANN SANNER, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The widow of a suicidal animal owner who released dozens of exotic creatures last fall will get the five surviving animals back from an Ohio zoo on Friday. And a friend says the woman plans to take the animals back to the farm in eastern Ohio where they previously lived.
Cyndi Huntsman told The Associated Press on Thursday that Marian Thompson intends to return the animals to the Zanesville farm once she gets the two leopards, two primates and a bear back from the Columbus zoo.
The animals have been held at the zoo since October under a state-issued quarantine order, which was lifted Monday.
A statement from the zoo on Thursday said the animals would be transferred back to Thompson on Friday.
Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said animals would be loaded into the zoo's heavy steel crates, which she says would need to be moved with a forklift. The leopards and bear would be sedated to be placed in the crates, then awoken once loaded into Thompson's vehicle.
"We're using drugs that can be reversed, so that we know they are awake before they ever leave here," Peters said.
She said she doesn't expect the primates to be sedated.
Thompson is the widow of Terry Thompson, who released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — from his eastern Ohio farm Oct. 18 before he committed suicide. Fearing for the public's safety, authorities killed 48 of the animals.
Three leopards, two Celebes macaques and a bear survived and were taken to the Columbus zoo after the release. 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.
Huntsman operates Stump Hill Farm near Massillon in northeast Ohio, which cares for and exhibits native and exotic animals ranging from tigers to coyotes to parrots. State officials had believed last fall that her farm could be a potential new home for Thompson's animals.
But the animals were never sent there. Huntsman said her property had been considered as a temporary home to give Thompson time to get her farm ready for the animals.
"She's told me that she has made improvements," Huntsman said in a telephone interview. "There was nothing wrong with the leopards' cages that they were in prior. She told me she got a perimeter fence around it. And they've all been cleaned."
State officials had issued the quarantine order because they said they were concerned about reports that the animals lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease.
Tom Stalf, the Columbus zoo's chief operating officer, said in a sworn statement released last week by the agriculture department that he was at the Thompsons' property the day the animals were let out. He said he saw two primates held in separate, small bird cages, along with a brown bear that was kept in a cage that was too small, considering the size of the bear.
Once the animals are returned to Thompson, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check on their welfare or require improvements to conditions in which they are kept.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said there's not a lot local authorities can do either.
"I don't have the right to go to her property in expectation of her bringing those animals back, or in expectation of something being wrong," Lutz said. "She is legally allowed to have those animals by law. And there's no law on the books that prevents her from bringing them back to her farm."
Lutz said the local prosecutor has reached out to Thompson's attorney to see if someone could verify that the cages are safe and clean. But he said he doesn't know whether the attorney has responded.
In the meantime, Lutz said authorities plan to monitor the animals' return. "At the first complaint we have, we'll follow up," he said.
One of Thompson's neighbors, Sam Kopchak, said he doesn't want the animals to living next door.
"I guess we just have to be on the alert and pay attention like we always did," said Kopchak, 65, a retired teacher whose property shares a border with Thompson's. He said he and his mother who lives with him didn't live in fear even when they could hear lions roaring at night from Thompson's property.