By ANN SANNER, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Five exotic animals are back on the eastern Ohio farm where they lived months ago before their owner abandoned them and released dozens of other wild animals into the rural community, then killed himself.
The widow of Terry Thompson picked up two leopards, two primates and a bear from the Columbus zoo on Friday and returned them to their former home in Zanesville where 50 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — were released Oct. 18.
Authorities killed 48 of the animals, fearing for the public's safety. Two others were presumed eaten by other animals. The surviving animals were found in cages and placed under quarantine at the zoo. Ohio's agriculture director lifted the quarantine order Monday, after test results showed all five animals were free of dangerously contagious or infectious diseases.
Thompson's suicide, the animals' release, and their killings led lawmakers to re-examine Ohio's restrictions on exotic pets, which are considered some of the nation's weakest.
Now that Marian Thompson has retrieved the animals, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check on their welfare or require improvements to conditions in which they are kept. The state's agriculture department says it will be up to local authorities to be alert to their caretaking.
"Ohio has done everything in its power to keep local officials informed throughout this process to ensure they had as much information as possible in advance of this threat returning to their backyard," said David Daniels, the state's agriculture director.
Ohio lawmakers are considering legislation that would ban new ownership of dangerous animals — but grandfather in owners such as Thompson. The bill is on track to pass the Legislature this month.
Should it become law, Thompson would have to register the animals with the state, obtain liability insurance and pay permit fees of at least $1,000 by 2014. She also would have to pass a background check, microchip the animals and meet strict new caretaking standards, including fencing requirements.
For now, Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said there is not much local authorities can do as long as the animals are being cared for properly. "At the first complaint we have, we'll follow up," he said.
Ron Welch, the county's assistant prosecuting attorney, said his office made several attempts to persuade Thompson's attorney to allow an inspector, the sheriff and a humane officer to see the cages at the property before the animals returned. They were denied.
"We were very disappointed with that because we felt that we just wanted at that point to provide some sense of security to our citizens and our community that this was in fact a safe place for these animals to be kept," Welch said.
Thompson arrived at a loading area at the zoo mid-morning Friday, driving a pickup truck pulling a silver horse trailer. The two leopards growled as they were loaded into crates in the trailer. A forklift loaded a steel cage carrying the bear. Thompson put her hand on the metal cage, as if to comfort the animal. In smaller carriers, the monkeys were placed inside the backseat of the truck cab.
Zoo staffers, including veterinarians and keepers, helped with the transfer. Two U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors were also on hand. Thompson ignored shouted questions from nearby news reporters.
Thompson previously tried to get the animals back from the zoo, but the quarantine prevented her from taking them.
Her home in Zanesville sits about a quarter-mile from a rural road, surrounded by fields and pastures where horses graze. A "Welcome Back!" balloon was tied to the mailbox, as her truck carrying the animals made its way down the property's long lane.
News media could see the bear being unloaded into a cage, of what appeared to be thick iron bars, in the yard. Some of her neighbors were concerned about the animals' return.
Sam Kopchak, 65, said if the animals were healthy, then his neighbor should get them back.
"I just wish she would take them somewhere else," said Kopchak, a retired teacher whose property shares a border with Thompson's.
Thompson's lawyer has told the state's agriculture department that his client has adequate cages for the surviving animals. Multiple messages left for Robert McClelland were not returned.
Tom Stalf, the Columbus zoo's chief operating officer, was at Thompson's the day of the Zanesville release. He said the primates taken in the zoo had been held in separate, small bird cages, and the brown bear was kept in a cage that wasn't fit for its size.
"There was feces on the floor, in the cages," Stalf said. "You could not get a fresh breath."
Cyndi Huntsman, a friend of Thompson's, has told The Associated Press that Thompson had cleaned the cages.
Of the animals that Terry Thompson released, three leopards, two Celebes macaques and a bear survived and were taken to the zoo. One spotted leopard had to be euthanized at the zoo in January. The macaques are small primates.
The zoo said it raised more than $44,000 in online donations to help cover the costs of at least $120,000 to care for the animals.
Associated Press photographer Mark Duncan contributed to this report from Zanesville, Ohio.