Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why did Terry Thompson do it?

This is a time to mourn the dozens of animals killed in the panic at Zanesville, Ohio, after animal farm owner Terry Thompson released all of his animals and then killed himself. The death of so many animals is beyond horrible… The staggering carnage borders on unspeakable.
I trust the animal welfare community and, indeed, all of the good citizens of Ohio, to rise to the occasion and demand reasonable laws and, until new laws are enacted, enforcement of their supremely insufficient regulations. I wish I could say that I trusted Governor John Kasich to act responsibly, but I am pessimistic. I hope he proves that my pessimism is misplaced.
My heart goes out to the law enforcement officers who had to shoot the animals.
But regular readers of my blog will know where my thoughts are directed… What was in Terry Thompson’s mind when he freed his animals before shooting himself? Was he filled with hatred for the community, and took his revenge by setting his animals free to terrorize people he knew? Or did he irrationally, bizarrely, want his animals to feel the freedom that he, as an ex-prisoner, had lost?
It is being reported that Thompson was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which may help explain his final reason for suicide. But that doesn't even begin to explain why he released his animals. And if I’ve learned anything this year, searching for the reasons for the suicides in my family, it’s that there is usually more than meets the eye.
I always thought that dad killed himself because he was a little crazy but, over the past couple of months, I’ve discovered a more complicated man. I thought my brother shot himself because he saw his life going into a dead-end situation like dad’s, but I’ve discovered a much more troubled life. I didn’t know the reason for a young cousin’s suicide with a gun, and I was shocked to find out that two of my great grandparents killed themselves. It is so hard to understand the wasted lives, the painful results of suicide.
Will this suicide, this man, this awful situation, help us understand the mindsets of people who would collect dangerous animals as if they were toys? Or will we shake our heads and walk away, confused, with no answers to another inexplicable - and particularly vile - suicide?

Please click here to help ban private ownership of exotic animals in Ohio. There is no reason to allow private ownership, unless you want to protect the rights of suicidal ex-cons to terrorize their neighbors.

Update 10/21/11: So many people are angry because the animals were shot instead of tranquilized, and I understand that anger. But this morning a woman with many years of experience with captive animals explained to me why they had to make the tough decision:

"Darting animals is an art, even when it's an experienced zoo vet darting a caged animal. Many people don't understand that animals don't drop in their tracks when darted, even if the drug is fully injected. It can take 20 minutes or more for the drug to take full effect. Sometimes the dart doesn't even go off. Sometimes the animal is so full of adrenaline that the drug will not take effect. Drugs are calculated based on weight - too much is fatal, not enough is useless. How do you get a good weight on an unknown animal hiding in the bushes? The sheriff deputies had no choice. What's sad is that these animals were not recognized as a public safety hazard from the day they arrived in that compound."

Update 10/22/11: I happened to be driving from Maryland to Illinois the weekend after the massacre, and Zanesville was on the way. I pulled off the road, just to silently pay my respects to the 50 animals who died because of one man's desperation. And because of inadequate laws to protect the animals who are forced to rely on sometimes unstable people.

Update 12/10/11: This article by Sue Manning at Associated Press, Economy has wildlife rescue on endangered species list, wonders whether the financial challenges facing sanctuaries may have driven Thompson over the edge.

Update 1/10/12: A Tighter Leash on Exotic Pets, by Sarah Maslin Nir at the New York Times, is a good summary of how governments and animal welfare groups are working for stronger laws to protect people and the animals. Maybe some good will come out of this tragic event, after all.

On January 18, the Zanesville Time-Recorder reported on the final police investigation report. Witnesses suggest that Thompson was distraught about his upcoming house arrest, and was overwhelmed with the care of the animals. The paper suggests that the release may have been pre-mediated.

Update 2/5/12: Ohio State Senator Troy Balderson introduced legislation to ban new ownership of exotic pets in Ohio.

Update 4/30/12: Ohio still hasn't passed the legislation. In the meantime, Marion Thompson is about to get back the five surviving animals

Update 12/21/12: Ohioans now are protected by a reasonable law, as reported in the Plain Dealer: Ohio law banning ownership of dangerous wild animals survives challenge in federal court.


  1. This event just kicked me in the gut when I heard it-the photos of the slaughtered animals really made me sick- how many more of these "tragedies waiting to happen", are out there?
    Kids shooting other kids in schools,bullied kids commiting suicide,innocents in public shops getting killed. Can we finally adopt an "if you perceive something is amiss, say something" attitude?
    Surely others around Terry including the local authorities, could have seen that he had too many animals,
    no real staff, and wasn't cerified, acredited or responsible enough to care for so many wild strong creatures?
    Should we have more mental health counselors talking to people who seem unstable?
    Why are states so reluctant to change the laws banning ownership of these creatures??

  2. There's a lot that can be said, little that can be done. Although it is too late for these beautiful animals, please be heartened by this organization ( and the work it does for many unfortunate animals (many of their rescues have been from Ohio). No, I don't work there nor am I a fund raiser for the organization. The stories are amazing and will hopefully lift your spirits a bit after this heartache.

  3. Good lord, how disturbing. This is one image hard to erase out of my mind. How could he have really loved these creatures, and not expect them to be executed left on their own, running free. Selfish act is all I can think.

  4. your not putting yourself in someone elses shoes, those who have too many kids or too many pets are guilty of too much love as well as delusion,(terry thompson is no diferant!) , someone may be wrong but he does not deserve more scorn than you do for your misdeeds!this act may have been a signal to us all.., that tiger was carrying him like a cub back to her den! they may have been raised by him , can no one truly understand the suicidal, not even this blogger who can do good at not judging but not so good at understanding, all animals should have an apropriate home too mister not just exotics, i means seriously case by case(refering your orginization).im afrraid this whole thing has completely gone over the publics head even though its widely publicized in an intolerably miopic way. a symbol such as this could be many things from where we sit so far from the truth, but we seem cold, in more ways than one, i presume to take the sides of the freaks and the shut-ins because thats what america attacks, and the stone that the builder refuse shall be the first corner stone,etc..grow up america, whether he was satan or jesus, we are not gonna know if we cant see further than our own noses.