Montana elephant escape recalls Zanesville, Ohio, exotic animal release, shooting deaths

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A circus elephant went for a stroll through the streets of Butte, Montana, this week, where she was captured on video by residents.

Viola, the 58-year-old Asian elephant, was in the parking lot of the civic center in Butte, Montana being washed before a performance with the Jordan World Circus on Tuesday when a car backfired and spooked her, according to NBC Montana. There were no injuries reported, and Viola’s handlers were able to corral her after about 20 minutes without having to call law enforcement.

While this story ended safely for all involved, the outcome of a zoo escape in Ohio was far more tragic.

Private zoo owner releases 56 exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011

It started with a phone call to 911 on Oct. 18, 2011. A woman reported seeing a bear and lion roaming around.

“There’s a bear and a lion out?” the operator asked, as reported by the New York Times in an article that ran in the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Massachusetts.

“Yeah,” said the woman, “Right up behind us.” The caller was asked to repeat that last part. “Yeah,” she said. “They’re chasing Terry’s horses.”

That day, Terry Thompson had released 56 exotic animals from his 70-acre farm outside Zanesville, about 55 miles east of Columbus, before taking his own life.

Fearing for the public’s safety, Muskingum County Sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement personnel killed about 50 of the loose animals, which included 18 Bengal tigers — an endangered species with fewer than 3,000 left in the wild — 17 lions, six black bears, three cougars, two grizzly bears, two wolves and a baboon, according to Axios.

Six surviving animals were taken to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, five of which were returned to Thompson’s widow about six months later.

Who was Terry Thompson and why did he release the animals?

Terry Thompson, 62, had been released from a federal prison in August and freed from a Cincinnati-area halfway house on Sept. 30 after a yearlong sentence for possessing illegal firearms. Thompson had been recently separated from his wife, but it was unclear why he released the animals, which he and his wife had taken care of for many years.

John Moore, a friend of Thompson’s for more than 20 years, said he was a Vietnam veteran and gun collector with a federal firearms license who had been sentenced in October 2010 for possession of various machine guns and sniper rifles, including eight with missing serial numbers.

Incident spurs new laws on owning exotic animals in Ohio

In the wake of the Zanesville incident, Ohio lawmakers started work on new laws to ban private owners from acquiring, selling and breeding restricted species in Ohio.

The restricted list includes lions, tigers, bears, elephants, all venomous snakes and certain monkeys. 

Owners who had registered their exotic animals – and met caging and care standards set out in the law – could keep their animals as long as they live. But they can’t buy new ones or breed those they have.