The public emergency that was declared for Zanesville, Ohio, on Tuesday night and was still in force yesterday seemed like the script of a madcap movie. If residents went down to the woods, they would find not just bears but lions, camels, tigers, monkeys and wolves as well – all of them very dangerous.
The animals had been housed at Muskingum County Animal Farm – a 60-acre private zoo just outside the city. Over the years, it had periodically attracted the attention of the sheriff's office. But the worst of all tragedies had apparently struck when officers arrived. The zoo's owner, Terry Thompson, was found dead, having reportedly committed suicide, and the doors to all of the animal cages had been left open, as had gates in the perimeter fence.
At daybreak yesterday, police said only three animals appeared to be still on the loose and a threat to the community – a mountain lion, a grizzly bear and a monkey. Schools across the area were closed and residents were told to remain indoors until given the all clear.
Most of the exotic animals accounted for by police had been shot dead. Sheriff Matt Lutz said he gave the order to shoot to kill as dusk approached on Tuesday because he had to put residents' safety above the animals' welfare.
He cited one attempt that was made to tranquillise a 300-pound Bengal tiger, saying the animal had gone "crazy" and had to be put down.
Among the animal experts rushed to the area to assist Mr Lutz was Jack Hanna, a presenter of natural history programmes on US TV, who is also director emeritus of the zoo in nearby Columbus, the Ohio state capital. The drama of so many exotic animals running loose in so unlikely a setting was unique, he said, adding: "This is like Noah's Ark wrecking here in Zanesville."
Mr Hanna defended the decision to kill more than 40 of the animals before they strayed beyond the zoo itself. "You cannot tranquillise an animal like this, a bear or a leopard or a tiger [at night]," he said. "If you do that, the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have [police officers] in danger of losing their life, and other people."
That peril was underlined by Sheriff Lutz. "We are not talking about your normal, every day house-cat or dog. These are 300-pound Bengal tigers that we had to put down," he noted. "I gave the order... that if animals looked like they were on their way out, they were put down."
As for closing schools, he added: "We didn't want kids standing at a bus stop... and have these big animals walk by."
Some neighbours spoke warmly of Mr Thompson, saying he always took good care of his animals, which are thought to have numbered about 51.
However, news agencies reported that he had only recently served a one-year jail term for firearms violations. "This has been a huge problem for us for a lot of years," Mr Lutz said of the zoo.