Zanesville Zoo Story

Elaine Sutton
• Monday, 17 January, 2022
• 21 min read

A little before five o'clock on the evening of October 18, 2011, as the day began to ebb away, a retired schoolteacher named Sam Kochab left the home he shared with his 84-year-old mother and headed into the paddock behind their house to attend to the horse he'd bought nine days earlier. Red, a half-Arabian pinto, was acting skittish and had moved toward the far corner of the field.

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They were circling, and in the center of their troubled orbit there was some kind of dark shape. The Zookeeper Terry Thompson, 62, born and raised in Janesville, Ohio.

He knew what he'd do: put Red in the barn, go back to the house, report what he'd seen. He and Red had taken only a few steps toward the barn when Kochab saw something else, close by, just ahead of them on the other side of the fence.

He didn't know too much about lions, but he had heard that it was unwise to challenge them by looking them in the eye, and that if you ran away they had a tendency to chase you. Inside the barn Kochab locked the doors, then telephoned his mother, sitting in front of the TV about a hundred yards away back in the house.

She sounded calm when she reported what her son had seen, as though there was really nothing too strange or alarming about a lion and a bear running loose on an October afternoon in Ohio. Deputy Jonathan Merry was two hours into his shift, serving a court summons a couple of miles away in Janesville, when the call came through about a lion and a bear on the loose.

When he arrived, he could see, just inside Thompson's fence, a tiger, a black bear, and two lionesses. While he was waiting for Mrs. Kochab to answer the door, he saw a large gray wolf running southward along the road behind him.

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(Source: www.gq.com)

He set down his clipboard on the porch, where it would remain for the next few hours, ran to his patrol car, and followed the wolf. He was inspecting the body when word came over the radio that some colleagues had a lion cornered near the Thompson residence.

An African lioness crawled under the livestock fence and ran south down the road then headed toward someone's home, so he shot her before she could go farther. Then he turned back, intending to deal with a black bear and a tiger along the roadway, but he was distracted by a cougar heading south, so he followed the cougar into another driveway where he met a male African lion coming the other way.

He'd already hung up his uniform and finished his dinner when, at around 5:20 p.m., he got the call reporting that Terry Thompson had an animal out. Occasionally there were reports of more unusual creatures running free but nothing too bad had ever happened.

In the fifteen minutes it took him to get to the scene, as the reports he was receiving over the radio escalated, the seriousness and strangeness became clear. There was an apartment building just on the other side of the interstate that bordered Thompson's land.

Blake sounded his horn outside Thompson's house, but there was no response, so he drove back, and at the foot of the drive he met John Moore, the caretaker who regularly fed the animals and had been alerted by a phone call from someone in the neighborhood. But on their way back to the road, Moore spotted a body near the barn.

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(Source: www.gq.com)

Forty miles away, at the Columbus Zoo, an event was being held for the International Rhino Foundation. Rhino experts from around the world had gathered, and the zoo was throwing a cocktail party on the grounds of the polar-bear exhibit.

“One of our vets came into the cocktail area,” says Tom Staff, the zoo's chief operating officer, “and you could see the panic on her face. “ Staff, who had moved to Columbus only eighteen months earlier, didn't know who Thompson was, but others did.

Dr. Michael Barrie, the zoo's director of animal health, had been up at Thompson's property to inspect his large private collection of animals in 2008, accompanying an ATF raid that eventually led to Thompson's imprisonment for a year on gun charges. The Aftermath From top: a nearby highway sign warns drivers; the gathered bodies of the slaughtered animals.

That evening, the zoo assembled its capture-and-recovery team, armed with both tranquilizer-dart guns and regular weapons, and set out for Janesville. John Moore mentally ran through the rows of cages he would feed.

That's when Moore told Deputy Jeff Second something that would later appear in the official police report and came to be taken as a kind of explanation for what had happened, albeit one that prompted many further questions. “That's when Terry actually goes to and asks him about Marian having cheated on him while he was in prison,” says Deputy Second.

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(Source: www.planetbroadcasting.com)

And then Terry makes this statement back to him: 'Well, I have a plan to find out, and you will know it when it happens.' When Deputy Todd Navel, who normally heads up the drug squad, arrived at the scene, Sergeant Blake told him about the body that they had spotted.

By now they had also decided that they would need to neutralize all the animals that were loose, even those still on Thompson's property, so they formed a shooting party. Blake drove Navel's Silverado crew cab, and four others sat on the bed of the truck behind him so that they wouldn't have to fire out of windows.

(At 6:04 p.m., Lutz shared this information on the police radio: “Okay, we have located the owner. That was all the five of them could learn for now because they were urgently redeployed to the southern end of the property where some cats had been spotted readying to cross the boundary fence.

Navel's tactic was to shoot for the head a couple of times, and then move on to the body and keep putting rounds into it. After a while the four shooters ran low on ammo and called for more, and eventually they headed back toward where the body was.

Nearby, they found bolt cutters and a stainless-steel Ruler .357 magnum revolvers. One detail Sheriff Lutz chose to release to the press at the time was that there was a sizable laceration on Thompson's head that was consistent with a big cat's bite.

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“Apparently,” Tom Staff theorizes, “he wanted the animals to eat him.” Encounters with animals that would normally have been remembered for a lifetime were forgotten moments later as the next came along.

Whatever people knew of the real situation, and of the hard decisions that had to be made, when you saw that image all you could think was: This is a photo of a place where dozens of big beautiful animals were massacred. By the time the Columbus Zoo team had arrived at the holding area, it was dark.

Though no trace would be found of it, dead or alive, it was eventually decided that it had most likely been eaten by one of the cats. And finally, out back near the empty swimming pool, was a small grizzly bear, also in a birdcage.

Marian insisted on removing the macaques from their cages herself, waving off the zoo personnel's advice about the risk she was taking. A big digger was brought in and a hole was dug maybe thirty feet deep.

Thompson's body was taken from the scene for an autopsy at the Licking County Coroner's, where it revealed a few of its secrets. At death Terry William Thompson was five feet five inches tall and weighed 174 pounds.

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(Source: properties.lepirealestate.com)

His gallbladder had been removed earlier in life, and he was suffering from severe atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. There was gray powder residue on his left hand that appeared to be from a gun being fired.

And then there was what the coroner described like this: “a 5 3/4 × 4 inch gaping laceration involving the pubic region and bilateral medial thighs with the absence of genitalia, exposure of the pubic bones and adjacent soft tissue.” Or, to spell it out: By the time the body was recovered, no part of his external genitalia remained.

Though Ohio legislators are now scrambling to rectify this, the state where Terry Thompson lived is one of a handful where the regulations on exotic-animal ownership have historically been very light. Your neighbor could buy as many tigers, lions, cougars, and other exotic animals as he so desired and would be under no obligation to tell anyone.

They are effectively worthless, because there are usually more people trying to unload them than wanting to purchase them, which is also why across America there are a surprising number of sizable big-cat sanctuaries, several with over a hundred animals. At the second-largest of these, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in rural Indiana east of Terre Haute, where most of the 230 cats seem to come with their own tale of horror, the center's founder, Joe Taft, tells me an incidental story that won't leave my mind, because it seems to encapsulate, this time in a rather beautiful way, what people will do in the elusive pursuit of accord and communion between man and animal.

Though sanctuaries try to avoid pregnancies, sometimes new arrivals are pregnant and occasionally accidents happen, and when there are baby cubs they are hand-raised by humans. Ten years ago, after a heart attack, Taft had a quintuple-bypass operation.

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At the time there was a young tiger cub living with him and when Taft returned from the hospital he was unwilling to displace it. Nonetheless, it was clearly impossible to allow a boisterous feline to clamber freely over someone who has just had major heart surgery.

In Taft's living room, a fence was built around his couch, and that is where he spent most of his time as he recuperated: safely inside a cage inside his own house, man looking out, tiger looking in. But it isn't easy to work out what is right when it comes to animals like these, either morally or practically, which may be why there are so many shades of opinion.

I can see a logic in some kind of extreme libertarian position (people should be able to do what they want with animals unless they are clearly shown to be doing harm) and, conversely, in a hard-core animal-rights position (no animals should be used for any human purpose whatsoever), but the arguments for everything in between seem murky. Likewise, there is wide disagreement about what kind of human intervention or interaction can be beneficial or justified.

What about neutering, which is now considered not merely acceptable but responsible behavior when it comes to many nonexotic pets? Maybe something went very astray with Terry Thompson, and so of course it is now in the interests of the other owners to draw a firm line between what he did and what they do, but my hunch is that if one had visited him a few years ago, he would have expressed the same love and care and concern for his animals, and done so with conviction.

The truth is that while, on a practical level, we may feel as though we can distinguish between better and worse owners, it is logically impossible to know for certain what the animals are thinking or experiencing. When the owners I meet with talk about the proposed new laws (which, in their most inflexible draft versions, would effectively close down everyone in Ohio whom I speak with, and so would inevitably lead to massive animal authorization), there is one other common target of their ire, aside from Terry Thompson: Jack Hanna.

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(Source: www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com)

They see hypocrisy in much of what he now says, particularly given his past use of animals from private owners as props on TV shows. “He would not have his position now,” echoes another, Evelyn Shaw (one cougar, two serials, one lemur, one macaw, one skunk), “if he had not started out as a private owner.

I wonder how I might bring up the dark moment that the exotic-animal owners think of as his great never mentioned dirty secret, but I don't need to. “A little boy loses his arm to an African lion, 1972 or 1973, Tennessee,” he remembers.

He was actually found with a pillowcase over his head and a gunshot wound to his stomach. Nearly all the exotic-animal owners I speak with, deeply skeptical of the official account, identify the same “true” culprit: animal-rights activists.

I hear nothing to substantiate any of this, and the multitude and variety of the tales alone is enough to make one doubt any of them in particular. The craziest, most tangentially related rumor that I hear in Janesville : Jack Hanna was supplying Charlie Sheen's tiger blood.

Terry Thompson's story went round the world, but it was also barely told at all. Whether he was a daredevil hero or an idiot or an animal lover or an animal hater or a victim or a recluse or a good man betrayed, he was assumed to be a cartoon of a man whose whole life could be extrapolated from its final minutes.

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(Source: www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com)

Almost from the moment Mrs. Kochab picked up her telephone and reported that wild animals were on the loose, it was taken for granted that the manner of Terry Thompson's death explained all anyone needed to know about the life that came before it. I've shot more rounds through a machine gun than all the cops in Janesville put together, but I had to stay alive, so it wasn't a fun thing.

-Terry Thompson, secretly recorded in his home by a government informant, April and May 2008. Terry William Thompson grew up just east of Janesville on his parents' farm, close to the airport.

“He'd ride his bicycle over, watch the airplanes, and wanted to fly,” says Dr. Ralph Smith, a local vet who now lives on a lake where Terry used to go camping as a Boy Scout. Thompson's sounds like an idyllic small-town-America '60s childhood: bicycles, Boy Scouts, loving parents, sporting triumphs, souped-up cars, girls.

Many of Thompson's friends believe that his time in Vietnam was the defining experience of his life. Mike Marshall, who later flew civilian planes with him, says Thompson brought it up frequently.

Thompson was a door gunner on a Huey helicopter; he told Marshall they had to soften up landing zones, drop soldiers off and pick them up under hostile fire, make emergency medical evacuations: “Dragged both bodies and wounded and maimed soldiers into the helicopter,” Marshall says. “He wrestled with the biblical thing: 'I guess I'll never go to heaven because I killed people,' says Chuck Spires, his friend and guitar teacher.

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On his way home from Vietnam, Thompson found himself in Columbus, Ohio. His wife-to-be, Marian Sharp, came from what was considered a good local family, and was an accomplished barrel racer and horsewoman.

Inside the shop, along with the bikes and guns, were the kind of animals he favored in those early days. One time Thompson offered Dr. Smith a boat for half price.

Thompson did things his own way even when it led him into trouble. He once told Spires about someone repeatedly breaking the windows of his shop and vandalizing the place, and how he'd waited for three nights to catch the culprit.

“On the third night,” says Spires, “this guy showed up, started beating windows out. He eventually sold his bike shop and, for the rest of Thompson's life, his hobbies and whatever he did to make a living seemed to mingle in ways that were sometimes ill-defined.

In 1977, Thompson went to an auction for exotic animals and bought his wife a baby tiger cub called Simba for her birthday. As time passed, people got used to the way he might turn up at the local airfield, say, with a baby bear or lion.

He was charged with animal cruelty relating to some livestock he kept on his parents' old property on the other side of town after three cows and a buffalo were said to have died of starvation and was sentenced to six months' house arrest. Thompson apologized and told Polk that he'd never see those dogs again, but three days later they were back and killed two more calves.

Spires says Thompson told him that he only pleaded guilty because otherwise they were also going to charge his wife as a co-owner of the property; Thompson told the judge that he pleaded guilty because he and his wife couldn't afford further legal fees. It was this ATF raid that also forced real scrutiny for the first time on his exotic animals.

Thompson would speak of his grand plans for what he liked to call T's Wild Kingdom: a large octagonal building, a pond for the bears. But for now most of the animals were kept in connected rows of cages along the driveway leading to his house, and to feed them he would often illegally collect roadkill deer.

One time Marshall discovered that Thompson had some convertibles in the barn next to two kangaroos: “a boat-tailed roadster, a Rosenberg or something like that, covered with dust and crap. Toward the end, according to Cindy Huntsman, he seemed to treat his collection of animals in the same way.

Thompson went to the Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia, on November 17, 2010. When John Moore told the police about a letter accusing Marian Thompson of adultery that Thompson had received on the day before his death, the implication seemed to be that he had received some fresh, devastating news about his marriage.

How could you blame a woman you have spent forty years of your life with for that, if you were sane? A bond that tied two people for so long can take time to break completely.

Spires mentions that one morning he found a note from Marian in his mailbox, with a stamped addressed envelope, asking if he would write to Terry in prison. And sometime in this period, Marian told Sam Kochab that Terry was giving guitar lessons behind bars.

But if afterward Thompson would try to present his year of incarceration with the same old bravado, telling people that he was voted “Most Interesting Person in prison,” the events in his marriage clearly had taken a toll. “He said, you stand in line for two hours to get to the phone,” remembers Stairwell, “and then you call home and there's no answer.

He was released, forty pounds lighter than a year before, on the day of September 30. Instead, he walked over to Walmart, bought a Schwinn cruiser bicycle and rode nearly fifty miles through the rainy night along the old Route 40 until he reached his home.

Thompson seemed to need help, so Stairwell took up his Echo Weed Eater, and his copper for the thicker growths, and his portable air compressor to pump up the flat tires of Thompson's Dually truck. His probation officer also visited, and Thompson told him how distraught he was at the prospect of being hooked up for a year's electronic home confinement.

Three days before Thompson died, Chuck Spires, the guitar instructor, spoke with him for about twenty minutes. When Thompson said that as soon as he had some in his pocket he'd be back for more guitar lessons, Spires told him not to worry about that.

The cats looked healthy enough, apart from one who had ribs showing, and they were rubbing their heads against the fences. But Thompson explained how upset he was that he used to be able to go around his own private zoo and call his animals by name but could no longer do so.

“He felt betrayed by the government, by the army, by society in general,” claims Marshall. I think it was the only way he felt that he could really punish Marian was to take something that she loved, too.

In the bottom of my heart, I think Terry was thumbing his nose at everybody, and he wanted to destroy that which Marian loved the most. “I think he knew when he did what he did that he was going to put himself and Janesville, Ohio, on the map,” Stairwell says.

The sentences that go round my brain are ones that were said to me by one of the animal owners I spoke to, Nancy Wider. But for those who'd prefer a Rosebud moment, here's one more story from forty years earlier, from the time when an Ohio youth with beautiful blue eyes found himself forsaken and lost, deep in the kind of darkness and damage that some never completely escape.

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