ZANESVILLE, Ohio – The owner of an exotic animal preserve who committed suicide after freeing dozens of lions, tigers and other beasts owed tens of thousands in unpaid taxes, and a fellow big-cat enthusiast said Thursday that he had taken in so many creatures he was "in over his head."
A day after sheriff's deputies with high-powered rifles killed nearly 50 animals set free by Terry Thompson, the sheriff refused to speculate why he did it. Meanwhile, neighbors and friends questioned why Thompson -- a man who seemed to like animals more than people -- would send his animals to their doom.
Thompson was mired in debt. Court records show that he and his wife owed at least $68,000 in unpaid taxes to the IRS and the county, and he had two federal tax liens filed against him last year. He had just gotten out of federal prison last month for possessing unregistered weapons.
Kenny Hetrick, who has six tigers and other animals on his property outside Toledo, said he used to see Thompson at exotic-animal auctions a few times a year in Ohio. Many of Thompson's tigers had been donated to him by people who bought baby animals that they no longer wanted once they started to grow, Hetrick said.
"He really had more there than what he could do," Hetrick said. "I don't know what his deal was, but he was in over his head."
On Tuesday, Thompson, 62, opened the cages at his animal preserve and then killed himself. His body was found near the empty cages with a bite on the head that appeared to have been inflicted by a big cat shortly after Thompson shot himself, Sheriff Matt Lutz said. It appeared his body had been dragged a short distance, Lutz said.
Deputies killed 48 animals -- including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears -- in a hunt across the Ohio countryside that lasted nearly 24 hours and that has been criticized by some who say the animals should have been saved. Only a monkey was still missing, and it was probably killed by one of the big cats, Lutz said.
Thompson had run-ins with his neighbors and the law over escaped animals and conditions at his preserve. But whether he acted out of desperation or vengeance in setting the animals loose was unclear.
"I know how much he cared for them, and he would know that they would be killed," said Judy Hatfield, a family friend who visited the farm many times and said it wasn't unusual to have a monkey jump on her lap.
"I don't know what happened. I'm sure some horrible thing happened to him yesterday to make him do this or allow him to lose focus for a moment and do it. But I don't know what it is, and we may never know."
Lutz said Thompson's intentions were not part of the investigation.
"To take your own life, Mr. Thompson was not in the right state of mind," Lutz said. "And to speculate on why he did this would be a belittlement, I guess, by me, to do that, and I'm not going to do that."
Thompson and his wife spent much of their time and money caring for their menagerie, neighbors said. Most of the big cats and bears were declawed and had been bottle-fed by the couple, Hatfield said. Thompson also kept them fed by picking up roadkill and collecting spoiled meat from grocery stores, said another neighbor, Fred Polk.
The sheriff said that he spoke with Thompson's wife and that she was distraught over the loss of her husband and the animals. "You have to understand these animals were like kids to her," Lutz said. "She probably spent more time with these animals than some parents do spend with their kids."
Thompson's Muskingum County Animal Farm was not open to visitors, but he would occasionally take some of the smaller animals to nearby pet shows or nursing homes. He also provided a big cat for a photo shoot with supermodel Heidi Klum and appeared on the "Rachael Ray Show" in 2008 as an animal handler for a zoologist guest.
As for how he may have covered the costs of taking care of his animals, friends said he had a pilot's license and sometimes picked up extra cash flying people on his private plane. Neighbors also said he and wife gave horse-riding lessons on their farm. The Vietnam veteran once owned a motorcycle shop, friends said.
"When he came back from Vietnam, he was a little bit different. He was kind of a loner after he came back," said Polk, whose property is about 100 yards from Thompson's house. "He liked animals more than he did people. He really did."
Since 2004, Thompson had been charged by local authorities with cruelty to animals, allowing his animals to run free and improperly disposing of dead animals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also received two complaints about the farm in 2008 and 2009, involving such things as pens that may have been unsafe, animals that were too skinny and dead animals on the property, said Dave Sacks, a USDA spokesman. But the agency decided it had no authority to act.
Federal officials said the government had no jurisdiction over the farm under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Endangered Species Act since the animals were held as private property and were not exhibited or being used for other commercial purposes.