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Owner traded guns for animals; Other beasts were bought at auctions

An owner of dozens of wild animals who freed them before committing suicide this week was an avid gun collector who had traded weapons for a monkey, a leopard and a tiger cub, federal documents show.

Terry Thompson built his collection of exotic animals by swapping guns, sheltering animals no longer wanted by their owners and buying others at auctions, according to public records released Friday and interviews with friends.

"Once you have an exotic animal, you're somewhat tagged as someone who will take unwanted or abandoned animals. And that's how it grew," Thompson said, according to a deposition that was part of the government's attempt to seize 133 weapons from him.

No one knows for sure why Thompson freed 56 animals including lions, tigers and bears on Tuesday and then committed suicide, triggering a big-game hunt in the Ohio countryside as police officers shot and killed 48 of them for fear they would harm humans. A 49th animal was killed by one of the big cats. The remaining animals were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo.

The frightening situation put a spotlight on the lack of oversight on exotic pets in some states. Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions. Gov. John Kasich on Friday ordered temporary measures to crack down on private ownership of exotic wild animals while tougher laws are drafted this fall. He had let an order that banned buying and selling exotic animals expire last spring.

Thompson likely would have been in violation of that order because he had animal cruelty convictions in the past, but it's unclear if or when he would have lost his animals.

"All the statutes in the world don't keep something like what happened from happening," Kasich said. "I mean, who would have ever dreamt the guy's gonna commit suicide, open up the cages? The question is why did he have all those animals to begin with."

Thompson, 62, had his share of troubles in the last year. He owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, had marital problems and just returned home a few weeks ago after spending a year in federal prison for possessing unregistered weapons.

A week before Thompson killed himself, a sheriff's deputy visited his farm because a neighbor complained about his horses getting out again. He promised he would check the fences and admitted he was struggling to take care of all the animals, authorities said.

Thompson got by financially on proceeds from a motorcycle business he sold, sales of horse trailers and other equipment and a small family inheritance. He also was a pilot who occasionally flew chartered planes for businesses.

Authorities and animal experts went to the farm three years ago during a cruelty to animals investigation and found that some of the cages weren't padlocked and a few were secured with plastic ties that had been partially chewed, according to the records released by the Muskingum County Sheriff's Office.

The director of animal management from a wildlife preserve in Ohio said the bottoms of fences weren't secured and gates meant for dog kennels were used in pens housing the big cats. He also noted that a cage housing two lions should have had a much higher fence.

Animal pens were scattered on the patio and driveway of Thompson's home on the property, and there were several others inside the garage and basement. They had a black leopard in the basement and two tigers and two lion cubs in the garage.

On a patio next to Thompson's pool, two lion cubs and one black bear cub were in the same pen.

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