The Zanesville Wild Animal Escape
An embittered man sets more than 50 dangerous wild animals free upon his community before committing suicide … and you have to come in and deal with it, using standard police firearms.
Determination, tactics, teamwork and marksmanship skill under pressure can make up for less than “dangerous game power level” firearms.
Oct. 18, 2011, late afternoon on the outskirts of Zanesville, Ohio, the county seat of Muskingum County. Here, Terry Thompson, age 61, owns a ranch he has populated with some 56 exotic wild animals. They include six black bears, two big grizzlies, three mountain lions and two wolves. But his collection goes beyond indigenous American animals. The cramped cages in his zoo compound also contain assorted primates and, more ominously, 17 African lions and 18 Bengal tigers. None of them are tame. And he’s just opened the cages and released them all.
Having recently returned home from a Federal prison term for crimes involving illegal firearms, and discovering his long-suffering wife had left him, Thompson apparently plunged into bitter despair.
As the animals begin to leave their cages and taste freedom, Terry Thompson raises a stainless steel .357 Magnum revolver to his head, and pulls the trigger.
The long, dark night of killing has begun.
The first call came in to Muskingum County 9-1-1 dispatch at approximately 5 p.m. A neighbor saw a lion in her backyard. Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched, and arrived swiftly. What they found was something most cops have probably never seen before: an array of large, carnivorous predators walking around freely. Deputies soon spotted Thompson’s lifeless body near the barn. A white tiger was eating him.
Reinforcements were already on the way. Sheriff Matt Lutz arrived quickly and took command. Realizing the animals were probably clustered within a 500-yard radius of their pens and cages now, he knew how fast they could move. There were dense woods adjoining the 77-acre Thompson farm, and they were close to an interstate highway and more heavily populated neighborhoods. Having been to the property many times on animal related issues, Lutz knew the huge danger these animals presented to the populace, and he knew there was only one mechanism of containment with any chance of working.
He called in every available deputy, and gave the order to put the animals down. Now!
Pistol Versus Bear
One of the first deputies to start pulling triggers was Jonathan Merry. He settled the red dot of his Vortex optic on a gray wolf, and pressed the trigger of his M4. The animal was soon down and done. Merry returned to his patrol car, put the rifle inside and closed the door. He was about to enter the driver’s door and bring his patrol car back to the central scene when a black bear found him.
He saw the animal make eye contact. There were many directions in which it could have moved, but it lowered its head and charged him on all fours, growling. Outside the vehicle and unable to retrieve his rifle from inside it, he drew his pistol and fired.
The animal was coming full speed, and he has no recollection of aiming, only of focusing on its head and hoping to plant his shot in the brain.
The animal was 10′ away when he pressed the trigger of his department issue Glock 22.
The bear collapsed instantly from the single shot, its momentum skidding it virtually to Merry’s feet. He couldn’t see the wound in the bear’s furry head, but he figured it must have been a brain hit to drop the charging animal that fast. It looked as if the terrifying confrontation was over, but he knew how dangerous the animal would be if it regained its feet. With care — and with regret — he aimed the Glock this time and put a second 165-gr. Winchester Ranger-T .40 slug into the animal’s brain.
Before the night was over, he would also shoot a Bengal tiger, a full-grown lioness, three male African lions and a grizzly bear; all with the M4. After the close call with the black bear at the car, he wouldn’t be caught without a rifle in his hand again, for the rest of the night.
Shotgun Vs. Lion
Detective K.C. Jones (pronounced “Casey” by his friends) was assigned as lead investigator of the untimely death of Terry Thompson. Given the circumstances, he thought it would be an excellent idea to have a long gun readily at hand. Jones assessed his shooting backdrop; he had to begin his investigation at Thompson’s corpse near the barn. Because the interstate highway would very likely be in his line of fire if he was attacked by anything coming out of the barn, he chose the shortest-range weapon available to him: a Mossberg 500 slide-action shotgun loaded with standard 12-gauge 00 buckshot.
It wasn’t long before he needed it. A burst of gunfire came from behind the barn as other deputies neutralized one of the animals. This apparently spooked a full-grown male lion hiding in the barn area. It came out into view, moving fast and angling toward Jones as it made for some junk cars.
Jones threw the 12 gauge to his shoulder, swung with what he hoped was enough lead on the fast-moving cat, and pressed the trigger from a car length away. The animal disappeared behind a junked automobile. Acutely aware he had now lost sight of the lion and with a fresh round instantly racked into the chamber, Jones scanned for it. He finally spotted it 125 to 150 yards away. It had made its way to a field and gone prostrate. In the fading light he couldn’t see where he hit it, but Jones figured if the buckshot didn’t kill the animal, it had at least made him sick enough to not want a fight. Knowing the creature was now far out of shotgun range, Jones pointed out its location to Deputy Ryan Williams of the Special Response Team, who had arrived with a .308 precision rifle. Two .308 rounds kept the wounded lion in his resting place, and ended his pain.
Leo Vs. LEO
African hunters will tell you of their great respect for their biggest indigenous cat, Panthera leo, and whether they call it by its Latin name or simply lion, they’ll warn you the female can be more ferocious than the male. The deputies who encountered the single closest of the deadly animals that night figured it out for themselves.
Det. Sgt. Todd Kanavel was one of the law enforcement officers who shared this up close and personal moment. They were at a fence line, which may have been deliberately cut by the animal’s owner, when from no more than 3′ or 4′ away, a lioness thrust her head through the fence at them. They didn’t wait for her to get the rest of the way through; they opened fire instantly and heavily with their M4 carbines, dropping her immediately.
The Lady And The Tiger
One of the most ferocious of the animals was also among the last to die. By the next morning, all but the final few had been accounted for. Some half a dozen animals had been saved; they hadn’t escaped from their cages. Deputies had resecured the cages, which would allow trained and appropriately equipped zoo personnel to safely transfer them to the Columbus Zoo.
Still at large was one of the bigger Bengal tigers. The preceding night had taught the officers the great cats were tough. Ryan Williams estimated they were putting an average of 30 .223 rounds into the lions to keep them down. Tigers run bigger than lions.
Desperately hoping to capture at least one of the rare Bengals alive, the deputies provided cover for a zoo employee when the last of the tigers was spotted, hunkered down in a patch of weeds. The zoo professional carefully aimed and fired her tranquilizer gun, and her dart went true. Alas, in real life, it takes some 15 minutes for the tranquilizer to work. At the instant the dart hit the tiger, it sprang up and charged the woman from the zoo.
The covering deputies instantly opened fire with M4s and a .308. The wounded animal spun and ran down a fence line. Two other deputies shot it with M4s; it fell then regained its feet. Ryan Williams nailed it with another .308 slug; the tiger fell and again sprang back up. Williams shot it one more time with the .308, and it went down and out of sight.
They waited 15 minutes, hoping the tranquilizer would take effect and the animal’s wounds might be treatable by a vet. They finally approached. As they neared the spot where the tiger had gone to ground, they saw its head rear up violently from the weeds. Williams, who had swapped his Remington 700 bolt action for an M4 for the close work, put a shot in the back of its skull. Instead of collapsing, the tiger leaped to its feet and charged Deputy Williams and the woman from the zoo. Williams’ carbine jammed, but the other deputies opened up with rapid fire from their semi-auto M4s, and Deputy Tony Angelo planted another .308 slug in the big animal. This time, it went down for good. Williams later estimated at least three, if not four, .308 rounds had struck home, and nearly 40 .223 bullets before this last tiger died. It was now 10 a.m. and the last shots of the mission had been fired — in a rain that had begun 12 hours before — as the deputies had searched through the night to contain the animals.
A largely clueless public expressed great anger at the police for not being able to magically capture large, dangerous animals. Perhaps they thought each officer was Tarzan, and would wrestle lions down bare-handed and tie them up with jungle vines. Jack Hanna, the famed wild animal expert and advocate, was soon on the ground at Zanesville, and he commended the Muskingum County Sheriff’s Department for handling the catastrophe as best as it could be handled. Even the radical animal rights group PETA reserved its rage for Thompson, not the cops who had to clean up after his final assault on a community he rejected.
Sheriff Lutz’s decisiveness in recognizing the situation and ordering the animals be shot almost certainly saved lives. Had he and his people dithered, it is likely people would have been killed or crippled. According to investigators, the big cats killed at least two of the primates, completely devouring one. What devours a small ape will gobble up a small human.
No officers were injured, and no innocents harmed. Amazingly, hundreds of rounds had been fired, many if not most at night, with no collateral damage to property or individuals. The cats bit no one but the man who unleashed them. Law enforcement widely recognized the operation as magnificently disciplined.
Jonathan Merry, needless to say, was delighted with the performance of the 165-gr. Winchester Ranger-T .40 S&W round out of his Glock duty pistol. No one expected buckshot to stop an African lion, which averages 400 pounds, in its tracks. Pickup trucks with searchlights and alley lights, each carrying four police riflemen in the truck beds was the strategy, which achieved most of the containment. No one was looking for “1-shot-kill bragging rights.” Their job was to euthanize the animals, and not leave any wounded, raging predators at large in the community. After seeing the .223 bullets had little effect on the massive skulls of the tigers and the grizzly bears, the deputies’ strategy became massed barrages of fire aimed at the chest. Once the animals were down, they shot them a few more times — partly to assure humane destruction, partly to keep them from getting back up. This, obviously, led to a high round count. Ohio Department of Natural Resources personnel, Ohio State Police and other agencies played important parts in the containment, though all the shooting appeared to be done by Sheriff’s personnel.
There was no opportunity to necropsy the animals to see how the bullets had performed. However, the MCSD members I interviewed felt the issued Hornady TAP 55-gr. .223, and Hornady TAP 110-gr. .308 ammo did the job as intended. Meant as anti-personnel loads that might have to be used in populated Zanesville, they stayed in the bodies of the animals as designed. Some animals were also shot with one deputy’s privately owned Remington 700 in 7mm Magnum. Sheriff Lutz does not see any need to change ammunition at this time, though ammo allotment for patrol rifles is expected to increase. When ammunition supplies ran low, a retired Sheriff’s Lieutenant brought a thousand rounds of his own .223 ball to the scene, to replenish the deputies’ magazines.
In the dark for most of the ordeal and in the rain for much of it, the deputies gained much appreciation for two items of equipment. One was the red-dot sight, which in one or another brand was on almost all their patrol rifles. Another was the white-light unit affixed to each .223 rifle. Many of the animals were only spotted by the reflection of the light on their eyes in the darkness, and the extra candlepower allowed them to make certain of clear shooting backgrounds.
The deputies felt a collective sadness over having to kill these magnificent animals — creatures they took their children to the zoo to admire. The 18 dead Bengal tigers represented more than one percent of the entire 1,400 animal population of this endangered species on Earth. The responding officers were given an unpleasant job, and they accomplished it remarkably well.
American Handgunner extends its particular appreciation to Sheriff Matt Lutz, Detective Sergeant Todd Kanavel, Detective K.C. Jones, Deputy Ryan Williams, and Deputy Jonathan Merry. Their interviews with consultant Keith Jones and me can be downloaded to your computer or iPod as Episode Number 72 of the ProArms Podcast, available at proarmspodcast.com.
Story By Massad Ayoob