By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Five wild animals will soon be returned to the widow of a man who released them into the Ohio countryside last year, state officials said on Monday, raising concerns of a repeat of the panic that gripped the state when dozens of beasts including lions, tigers and bears roamed free.
Seven months after Terry Thompson released 56 exotic animals near Zanesville, Ohio, and then committed suicide, the Ohio legislature still is struggling to draft regulations on wild animal ownership. Ohio is one of only a handful of states with no restrictions on exotic animal ownership.
The state Agriculture Department said on Monday it had no legal way to prevent the five remaining animals - a spotted leopard, a black leopard, two Celebes Macaque monkeys and a brown bear - from being given back to Thompson's widow, Marilyn.
She has said she will take them back to the farm and put them in the cages they fled last October.
"This raises concerns, as she has indicated the cages have not been repaired, and has repeatedly refused to allow animal welfare experts to evaluate if conditions are safe for the animals and sufficient to prevent them from escaping and endangering the community," the Agriculture Department said.
The agency said the only hope of preventing their return to the Thompson family within 24 hours from the Columbus Zoo is for the county Humane Society to seek a court order to inspect the farm.
"Until then we can only hope that local officials choose to act to prevent another tragedy," the Agriculture Department said.
The local Humane Society could not immediately be reached for comment.
After Thompson, who had been charged with animal cruelty 11 times since 2004, released the lions, tigers and other wild animals last October, law enforcement officials had to go on a big game hunt. Authorities warned residents to stay inside while they killed 49 of the 56 animals.
Six were captured and sent to the Columbus Zoo but one spotted leopard later died there. Another animal was presumed eaten by others and was never accounted for.
The surviving animals have been held at the Columbus Zoo.
The state Senate passed a bill last week that would ban Ohio residents from buying lions, tigers, bears, elephants, wolves, alligators, crocodiles, and certain kinds of monkeys as pets, unless they follow strict guidelines.
Existing owners of wild animals can keep them if they follow the new rules, which include permit fees, registration and constructing proper facilities. The Ohio House may not vote on the measure until the end of May.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Bill Trott)