5 years later: Zanesville exotic animal escape lives on for witnesses

ZANESVILLE, Ohio — For Steve Blake it’s a first-grade school photograph of his son from decades ago.

It was always one of Blake’s favorites, that is, until Oct. 18, 2011. That was the day Blake helped with the killing of 48 exotic animals at the Terry Thompson farm in Zanesville, Ohio — about 55 miles east of Columbus, Ohio — driving a truck full of police officers who were shooting the animals.

“He had on a yellow shirt with a tiger on it,” said Blake, who at the time served as a sergeant with the Muskingum County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office but has since retired. “I still get about half teared up over that. It just reminds me of that. He’ll be 39 years old this year.”

The Zanesville animal escape, where Thompson freed his animals before taking his own life, unfolded in an evening. But for those who were there, its mark will last a lifetime. Few seemed anxious to talk about it, but many of those who were there will talk, and talk, about that night once asked. And they’ve been asked to talk about it — a lot.

“We go to different trainings and things of that nature, and we end up having to introduce ourselves and someone says ‘hey that’s where those animals were!,' ” said Ryan Williams, a sheriff’s deputy who served on the special response team that patrolled the property killing the animals.

For neighbor Sam Kopchak, the memory of that gloomy evening is as sharp five years later as if it happened yesterday.

“I picture the horses running in a circle, I picture the lion,” said Kopchak, who came face-to-face with an African lion standing just outside his pasture.

For Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, it was the warning signs as he rushed to the scene from an event in Pennsylvania.

“The first time it hit me in the face was when I saw the signs on the interstate that said ‘animals loose call 911,’ ” Hanna said. “When I saw the sign, my stomach dropped, and I knew the next 15 miles were going to be hard for me.”

It’s not clear when exactly Thompson freed his animals that day. But the first person to know something was awry was Kopchak, a retired teacher tending to a horse he bought nine days earlier.

“I saw a black figure up there and I said ‘What the heck is that,’ ” Kopchak said. And then Kopchak saw the lion along his fence line. “He was huge.”

Kopchak used his cellphone, which didn’t get a great signal, to call his elderly mother in the nearby house they shared, instructing her to call 911.

The “what ifs” linger for Kopchak.

Kopchak went out at 4:40 p.m. What would have happened if he went out five minutes later? Would he have seen anything had he gone outside five minutes earlier?

If he went out earlier, it could have been a long time before anyone else saw the animals and called authorities, and more of Thompson’s lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other animals probably would have escaped from the area, said Muskingum Sheriff Matt Lutz. As it turned out, not a single officer or member of the public was injured by the animals, which largely stayed on Thompson’s fenced property or remained in the immediate area.

We got very lucky,” Lutz said.

Lutz has never had any regrets about giving the order for the loose animals to be killed, he said.

“There wasn’t anything else that could have been done,” Lutz said. “We couldn’t let the animals escape off that farm and hurt someone.”

The animals were dangerous, he said.

Special response team members had spotted a lion sitting in a cage that had been cut open, Williams said. Deputies attempted to use the plastic fasteners carried as hand cuffs to secure a piece of fencing over the opening so the animal would not have to be harmed, he said. Instead, the lion suddenly advanced toward the opening and had to be shot, Williams said.

“To see the head and shoulders coming out of that hole with us being within two to three feet is an image I’m not going to forget,” he said.

What Lutz carries now is pride the situation was contained without a death or injury, and a few lessons he conveys the four to five times a year he’s asked to speak to other law enforcement agencies about the incident. One is to make every effort to address a potential issue, such as Thompson’s private zoo, before something gets out of hand, he said.

“Any time you know about something in your county that is a thorn in your side, you should do what you can to pull it out,” Lutz said.

Indeed, the sheriff’s office responded to more than 30 calls related to Thompson in the five years before the incident, ranging from horses and cattle repeatedly being loose, to a sighting of a lion running loose, to an animal cruelty investigation that raised concerns about Thompson keeping such animals. In retrospect, Lutz said he wishes state officials would have instituted effective exotic animal regulations sooner. A law was put in place in Ohio after the Zanesville incident, putting significant restrictions on the keeping of such animals.

“It was kind of a volcano just waiting to erupt,” he said.

Hanna, who gives as many as 50 talks a year on animals, said he is still regularly asked about the animal escape — and the shooting of the animals. He has not wavered in his belief that it was the right thing to do.

“All I can tell them is it had to be done,” he said.

It was a miracle no one was hurt, he said.

“It was a terrible thing, but you have to say the good Lord was with everybody,” Hanna said. “If they hadn’t gotten to those animals immediately, there would have been a loss of human life, it would have happened.”

Kopchak said he is glad wild animals no longer live next door.

The Thompson house has been put up for sale by Terry Thompson’s widow, Marian, who could not be reached for this story despite calls to relatives and a note left at the home. The real estate listing makes no mention of the animals once kept on the grounds and throughout the 3,728-square-foot home, which features an in-ground pool, game room and bucolic views.

Kopchak said he doesn’t get many calls about the incident anymore. But his friends still often greet him the way they have for the past five years, he said.

“Seen any lions or bears lately?”

Kopchak said he’s happy to report the answer is “no.”


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