Terry Thompson had been convicted of animal cruelty charges in 2005
He'd told authorities he would set his animals free if he could no longer care for them
When investigators visited his property, he would cuss and stare them down
He got kicked out of annual fair because his animals snarled at children
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Terry Thompson, the Ohio man who authorities say set his exotic animals free just before killing himself, once supplied a lion cub for a photo shoot with supermodel Heidi Klum.
“I wrote a letter to Heidi Klum’s people,” said Larry Hostetler, the executive director of the Animal Shelter Society of Muskingum County. “I strongly voiced my opinion that if they’re going to hire animals for entertainment, they might want to check handlers’ backgrounds – that Terry Thompson had been convicted of animal cruelty.
“Of course, I never heard anything back.”
Thompson and his wild animal farm had long been on authorities’ radar. Thompson had been kicked out of the local pet fair for bringing exotic animals that snarled at children. He had been convicted in November 2005 of animal cruelty, allowing an animal to roam freely and rendering animal waste without a license.
He had even threatened to let all his animals go when investigators visited after repeated calls of animal abuse or neglect.
But while investigators kept a close eye on him, Thompson professed his love for his animals to most anyone. He would often be seen driving down the road with a wild animal.
“My cats are happier than most people,” Thompson once told the Zanesville Times-Recorder. “I feed them every day, and they have a great place to live. How many people can say they have all they can eat and don’t have to worry about a place to live?”
In a 2008 video in New York, Thompson is seen smiling, holding a cub and handing it over to model Klum. “We heard about Terry Thompson from all of his work in movies and commercials and felt he had a great track record. The day of our shoot, he was very kind, loving and protective towards his animals,” said Christoph Körfer, the head of the German TV-station ProSieben in charge of the shoot. “This is definitely a tragic situation.”
Yet on Tuesday, a strained marriage collided with the stress and the expense of caring for so many animals, people close to the investigation told CNN.
“He was so depressed he said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to let them go,’ ” said Columbus Zoo director emeritus Jack Hanna, who helped authorities in the search for the wild animals.
The 62-year-old Thompson had been released from prison in recent weeks after serving a year behind bars on an illegal firearms conviction.
Authorities say Thompson unlocked his animal cages, opened the farm’s gates and shot himself to death.
Thompson freed dozens of exotic animals – from Bengal tigers to grizzly bears to baboons – setting off a frightening scenario outside Zanesville, a town of 25,000 in central Ohio. Authorities killed at least 49 animals, including 18 rare tigers.
“What happened here was one of the largest animal escapes in our country’s history,” said Hanna.
Sheriff Matt Lutz defended his officers, saying they had no choice but to kill the roaming animals. “I had deputies that had to shoot animals with sidearms at close range. That’s how volatile this situation was.”
Thompson was known as a flamboyant, volatile man. The sheriff’s department had been to the property on dozens of occasions over the last decade to check into reports of animal cruelty or animals on the loose.
Thompson would stare down those who entered his property with his steely blue eyes. He’d cuss and scream.
“I’ll be damned,” Thompson would shout, according to county Humane Officer David Durst. “I’ll let them animals go!”
“He was definitely a different breed,” said Durst, who investigates every case of animal cruelty in the county.
“We were just afraid that this was going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if it was going to happen, it was a matter of when.”
Durst said Thompson would often buy his exotic animals from people in other states and offer to host them on his property for vacation. “They’d visit and see the situation and they’d freak out and they’d call me,” he said. “They’d say, ‘I was horrified.’”
In the last year, even while Thompson was imprisoned on the weapons charges, Durst said he got at least one call a month about animals roaming loose.
Every time he visited Thompson’s farm, Durst was escorted by at least three sheriff’s deputies because he feared for his safety.
He said local authorities had alerted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state representatives and other power players about their fears concerning Thompson and his wild animals.
“And now we’re dealing with this.”
Hostetler with the Animal Shelter Society said Thompson was an animal collector who had a horrible reputation for the treatment of his animals.
“It’s been a nightmare out there for a decade,” Hostetler said. “I never thought he’d do something like he’s done. But I knew eventually something bad would happen out there.”
Hostetler said Thompson would bring his wild animals to the shelter’s annual pet fair, where people bring their dogs and cats. Thompson showed up once with bear cubs, once with tiger cubs and another time with a baby ape. Children would rush toward the exotic animals. “The animals were growling and snarling back at the children,” Hostetler said.
Every year, officials would ask Thompson to leave the fair. He’d argue it was his right to bring his animals. It got so testy that officials eventually changed the rules just to keep Thompson and his animals away. Now, only domestic house pets are welcome.
Durst and Hostetler said officials had tried to get state and federal authorities to take control of the animals while Thompson was imprisoned in the last year.
“We were trying and trying to get help,” Durst said. “Hopefully a tragedy like this will get the ball rolling with the state of Ohio and the ownership of exotic animals.
“The laws are so weak in Ohio, it’s ridiculous. You can have one permit and pretty much have all the exotic animals you want.”
Added Hostetler: “For me the sad part of this is that the court system could’ve removed those animals, and it’s really sad it reached this point.”
The Humane Society of the United States urged Ohio officials Wednesday to issue an emergency rule to crack down on exotic animal ownership. A previous emergency order issued by then-Gov. Ted Strickland that prohibited people convicted of animal cruelty from owning exotic animals expired in April.
The Humane Society said Thompson “would almost certainly have had his animals removed by May 1, 2011, if the emergency order had not expired.”
When he was first sentenced to animal cruelty charges in 2005, Thompson told the judge: “I’ve learned a lot from this case, and I do love my animals.”
Investigators have learned a lot from Thompson too, and must now contemplate what could have been done to stop Tuesday’s tragedy.
CNN’s Ann O’Neill contributed to this report.