The Ohio man who collected wild and rare animals admitted he was having a tough time taking care of them just days before he unleashed dozens of tigers, bears and lions into the countryside and killed himself.
A sheriff's deputy visited Terry Thompson's farm in eastern Ohio last week after a neighbor complained about his horses roaming away from the property where the wild animals were kept.
Records released Friday show Thompson said he had just gotten out of prison and didn't have good control over the animals.
Thompson freed his 56 animals Tuesday before committing suicide. Police officers shot to death 48 of them in rural Ohio in the interest of public safety.
No one knows for sure why the 62-year-old Thompson did what he did.
Thompson had been home only a few weeks after spending a year in prison on a gun conviction when the deputy stopped by. He also was having marital problems and deep in debt to the IRS.
His estranged sister said he likely felt overwhelmed.
"I can just see him standing on that hill looking at every animal, thinking, `How am I going to do this?'" Polly Thompson told The Associated Press. "And I'm sure he thought, `Nobody wants me.'"
His death and the release of the animals put a spotlight on the lack of oversight of exotic pets in some states. Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions.
Gov. John Kasich on Friday ordered temporary measures to crack down on private ownership of exotic wild animals while tougher laws are drafted this fall.
Under his executive order, the state will work with health departments and humane societies to better enforce existing laws, try to temporarily halt auction sales of wild animals, shut down unlicensed auctions, and review existing permits the state issues to people who own wild animals.
Kasich defended his decision last spring to let an order that banned buying and selling exotic animals expire, as the legislative process goes forward to address the issue. He said a committee now has put drafting new laws on a fast track for the end of next month.
Thompson would likely have been in violation of the earlier order because he had animal cruelty convictions in the past, but it's not clear when he would have lost the animals, said animal rights supporters.
"All the statutes in the world don't keep something like what happened, from happening," Kasich said. "I mean, who would have ever dreamt the guy's gonna commit suicide, open up the cages? The question is why did he have all those animals to begin with? Was it appropriate?"
Thompson built his collection of exotic animals by swapping guns, sheltering animals no longer wanted by their owners and buying others at auctions, according to public records released Friday and interviews with those who knew him.
Thompson supported himself and his animals on proceeds from a motorcycle business he sold, sales of horse trailers and other equipment and a small family inheritance. He also was a pilot who occasionally flew chartered planes for businesses.
His first exotic animal was a lion cub named Simba that he bought at an auction for his wife's birthday about 14 years ago. His collection grew from there.
"Once you have an exotic animal, you're somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that's how it grew," Thompson said, according to a deposition that was part of the government's attempt to seize 133 weapons from him.
Authorities said that after the deputy visited last week, Thompson promised he'd check the fences and admitted he was struggling to take care of all the animals.
"Terry stated to me that he had just recently got home out of prison, and he has not had very good control over any of his animals since he had been locked up," the deputy wrote in a report.
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said Kasich's action doesn't go far enough and urged him to ban the trade of exotic animals."
Deputies killed 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears in the hunt that has been criticized by some who say the animals should have been saved. The officers were ordered to kill the animals instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
Six animals were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo.
Thompson's wife, Marian Thompson, told investigators in the past that she was trying to get her husband to stop taking in animals.
"I'm going to put a stop to bringing in all these animals. I'm telling Terry, `No more,'" she said in a report filed in April 2005.
Authorities and animal experts went to the farm three years ago during a cruelty to animals investigation and found that some of the cages weren't padlocked and a few were secured with plastic ties that had been partially chewed, according to the records released by the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office.
Animal pens were scattered on the patio and driveway of the Thompsons' home on the property, and there were several others inside the garage and basement. They had a black leopard in the basement and two tigers and two lion cubs in the garage.
The director of animal management from a wildlife preserve in Ohio said the bottoms of fences weren't secured and gates meant for dog kennels were used in pens housing the big cats. He also noted that a cage housing two lions should have had a much higher fence.
"There was also a tree in this cage area, and there was nothing to prevent the animal from climbing the tree and escaping," a report said.
Authorities decided not to take the Thompsons' animals three years ago because there were no serious health problems but told the couple to fix the cages or they would get a court order forcing the changes.
Within three weeks, taller fences had been constructed. A county prosecutor then told detectives there was little else they could do because they had no authority to regulate anyone who keeps wild or exotic animals.
Even after the changes, detectives wrote in their final report that "it is impossible for the sheriff's office to say the Thompson property is safe."
Seewer reported from Toledo. Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman and Ann Sanner in Columbus also contributed to this report.
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