By Jim Leckrone
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - A shoot-to-kill order on lions, tigers, bears and other animals on the loose from an Ohio exotic pet farm was lifted at daylight on Wednesday as police armed with tranquilizer guns scoured the surrounding neighborhoods.
It was still unclear what caused the death of Terry Thompson, the owner of the farm in the east-central Ohio town of Zanesville, whose body was found on the ground late Tuesday when authorities went to the site to check on him following reports of wild animals running free in the area.
"There are 30-35 animals accounted for and may be more on the property," Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told ABC News early Wednesday.
Earlier Lutz said his deputies had shot dead about 25 animals. One of them was a bear that attacked a law enforcement officer, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, told ABC News.
Another eight animals, most of them described as "big cats," were still loose on Wednesday, authorities said.
One official put the figure higher.
"We're still concerned about animals that are out," Kim Hambel, director of operations for the Muskingham County Sheriff's Department, told CNN.
"We sent a deputy, a wildlife officer and a vet into the property to do a search and recovery. We think we still have 14 to 15 animals unaccounted for."
Lutz, who had issued a shoot-to-kill order overnight, said daylight would allow his force to tranquilize animals for capture instead.
"If there is any attempt we can do to tranquilize we will do that," he said.
Lutz described the animals found as "mature, very big and aggressive." The farm was home to a plethora of species including grizzly bears, black bears, lions, tigers and cheetahs.
Police were warning residents in the area to stay inside to keep safe, and area schools were ordered closed for Wednesday as a precaution. So far, no members of the public were known to have been hurt or killed by the animals.
Police work focused on securing the area around the farm, near Interstate 70 about a mile west of the city limits of Zanesville, and making sure the animals were taken care of.
Deputies, their search efforts hampered by heavy rain, were combing the area for any animals still missing.
Veterinarians from the Columbus Zoo, and from The Wilds, located about 20 miles away, were standing by to offer assistance if needed. The Wilds is North America's largest Conservation Facility for Endangered Species.
Hanna said personnel from The Wilds were called in years ago to help local officials over complaints from neighbors about the wild exotic animal farm.
Lutz said authorities were searching for the animals from their vehicles and were not walking through the heavily wooded rugged area. He said his office was also relying on neighbors and citizens in the area to report any animals they see.
Officials in Zanesville and the West Muskingum Local School district have said schools would be closed on Wednesday, while officials in other districts have said schools would close or were considering delaying opening hours.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Bill Trott in Washington; Editing by Jerry Norton)