Zanesville exotic animal release: ‘It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years;’ Through the eyes of those who battled it

Ohio Headlines

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (WJW) — Exactly ten years has passed since dozens of dangerous exotic animals were intentionally released into this community in central Ohio sending shock waves across the United States and changing the rules about such animals in the state forever.

On October 18, 2011 Terry Thompson of Zanesville intentionally released about fifty animals including 18 tigers, lions, two grizzly bears, mountain lions, leopards, and primates free before taking his own life.

In the days afterward, local and state law enforcement officers and troopers were literally hunting the animals. Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz remembers it as if it was yesterday.

“It’s hard to believe it has been ten years,” Lutz told Fox 8 on Monday. “Its not one of those things that I really want to talk about but I do because I still feel we were very lucky and fortunate that we had no body injured on that day.”

The incident got the attention of animal rights organizations and advocates from across the country, most all of whom supported the sheriff’s authorization to shoot and kill the freed animals on sight.

“Once you start hearing or seeing where those animals are at, it was probably the easiest decision I made because you just knew it was the right decision,” said Lutz.

Among those who were there in the community at the time was U.S. Congressman Troy Balderson, who told Fox 8 he was on his way to a local gym when he received a call from the sheriff.

“What could have happened that night when those animals were let loose? I don’t know if sheriff Lutz shared with you earlier but there was a high school soccer tournament going on less than a mile down the road, so the safety issue was the biggest thing,” Balderson told Fox 8 News on Monday.

At the time, Balderson was an Ohio State Senator.

In part because the event happened in his home community, Balderson became the sponsor of senate bill 310, sweeping new legislation that made dramatic changes across the state, essentially prohibiting all but those facilities which were specially accredited from owning a long list of animals classified as “dangerous wild animals.”

“What we did in the legislation was to make it more strict about the regulations that we had and it was not going to be easy to do this. You had to go about certain things and that’s something the state of Ohio did not have in place before this incident,” said Balderson.

“There were no rules before it was wide open you really didn’t need anything there were no restrictions for someone to have these exotic animals,” he added.

Balderson said he and other lawmakers went around the state looking at places that kept exotic animals.

“Myself and other legislators went throughout the state of Ohio and visited people that had these animals in their possession and something that didn’t get talked about a lot is that there were a lot of these facilities that were doing it correctly so that’s something we had to have that conversation about,” said Balderson.

Among those who lost their animals was Cindy Huntsman of Stump Hill Farms in Massillon where the state confiscated five tigers from her sanctuary.

Huntsman says since her animals were confiscated in 2016 she has not been able to have any of the animals on the state’s list and it has been more difficult for her to get funding for the remaining animals, mostly birds of prey that have been injured and cannot return to the wild.

“Because the law gave animal sanctuaries just kind of a black mark. So whenever something like that happens it really screws with the good people, as well as the bad people, in the business and when you ask for funding as a non-profit and people have that idea that its all bad, unless its a grant provider that you have worked with in the past and really knows your facility,” said Huntsman on Monday.

For the most part, however, sheriff Lutz and Congressman Balderson believe the law that emerged from the incident is one with which they are pleased.

“I don’t necessarily say it’s going to prevent an animal from escaping but its not going to have near the magnitude of what we had to deal with…having those visits and inspections and containment fences, containment plans, tranquilizers on site all that stuff that we did not have present during our incident,” said Lutz.

It is also a law that has been used as a template for similar legislation in other states and for federal regulations of exotic animals.

“We feel like we are in a really good place right now there has been no incidents since this legislation was put into place,” said Balderson.

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