Hunt on for escaped lions, tigers in Ohio 19 Oct 11

(Reuters) – Authorities closed schools and urged residents to stay in their homes on Wednesday as they tried to round up dangerous animals that escaped an Ohio farm after their owner opened their cages and then committed suicide, officials said.

Lions, tigers, cheetahs and grizzly bears were among the 48 animals that ran loose on Tuesday near Zanesville in eastern Ohio.

Many of them were shot by authorities after a shoot-to-kill order was issued but that order was lifted when daybreak came Wednesday and hunters switched to tranquilizer guns.

“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, although 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.”

The farm’s owner, Terry Thompson, was found dead on the ground when authorities went to the farm to check on him Tuesday following reports of animals running free.

“I got a call from our safety director … and he told me that Terry Thompson, the owner of the farm and owner of the animals, had set them free and then shot himself,” Mayor Howard Zwelling told CNN.

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 menagerie 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.

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.

Lutz said authorities were searching for the animals from their vehicles and were not walking through the rugged, heavily wooded area. He said his office also was relying on neighbors and citizens to report any animals they see.

Hambel said officers had been to Thompson’s farm several times in recent years in response to complaints.