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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It has been a dramatic 24 hours in another part of Ohio, the area around Zanesville in Muskingum County. Authorities have been hunting wild animals after an astounding discovery late yesterday. Seventeen lions, 18 tigers, monkeys, wolves, bears, dozens of animals had been set loose from cages at a farm where they were kept. Authorities believe the owner, Terry Thompson, opened their cages and cut the wires. Thompson was found dead yesterday, apparently a suicide.

The Muskingum County sheriff, Matt Lutz, says officers shot and killed nearly 50 of the animals and captured six alive. They're still searching for a monkey. We reached Sheriff Lutz earlier today at a busy command post near the farm, and he explained how he tried to manage the emergency yesterday.

SHERIFF MATT LUTZ: Once I was in route, I heard what was going on, realized the severity of it, at that point, I ordered the fact that if we do have animals trying to get over the fence or outside, that they were to be put down. If we had animals that were in the field roaming wild that were trying to get to, outside defense lines, that they were to be put down.

BLOCK: Sheriff Lutz, you said the animals were put down. Why were you shooting the animals - why were you shooting to kill? In other words, why were you not using tranquilizer guns?

LUTZ: Well, we don't carry tranquilizer guns. I don't know of any sheriff's office in the state of Ohio that has a tranquilizer gun in every cruiser. We do not have any other options other than deadly force. And we did request our local wilds preserve to send people out with tranquilizers. We also called for Columbus Zoo officials to come down. And by the time they got down, you know, it was at night, and it was just not a safe environment.

Once we got in there today, we did find another cat, a big tiger, that was laying in some brush. The vet took an unbelievable chance of getting close to this cat to tranquilize it. When she shot, the animal reacted, aggressively jumped up towards her and then turned and started to dart away from us. And at that point, we put that animal down, as well, because, you know, public safety was our number one concern, and we felt if we gave any of these animals a chance to get into freedom, that they would possibly have a chance to harm somebody.

BLOCK: I gather, Sheriff Lutz, that there have been a lot of complaints over the years about Mr. Thompson for animal abuse, and also complaints that animals have escaped before. Is that right?

LUTZ: Yeah. We've had about 35 incidents in our computer over the last seven years. And those range from anything from animal cruelty to animals at large to inhumane treatment of these animals.

BLOCK: Thirty-five incidents, which raises the question of why this operation was still under way, why this preserve was still...

LUTZ: I think there's a lot of people questioning that right now. And I think Ohio's laws have been pretty laxed in that field. And I think this is a situation where this individual was allowed to keep these animals. Obviously, he's let them out voluntarily. But at least, you know, they were allowed to keep these animals under some pretty uncertain circumstances.

BLOCK: Sheriff Lutz, over the years, as you were dealing with these complaints, had you feared that something like this might happen?

LUTZ: Every time we were out here.

BLOCK: Really?

LUTZ: Every time we were out here, we knew - I guess in the back of my mind I felt at one point Terry would probably get attacked by one of the animals because he was very confident in his ability to deal with the animals. He often went into the cages by himself, often had animals in the house that he treated as pets. And I just kind of assumed that's what would happen.

But I never dreamed that he would let them out. But we always knew that because the conditions of the farm were not always that stable, that there was always a chance that these animals could get free.

BLOCK: As concerned as you are, of course, about public safety, I wonder if it's been a tough thing for the officers to be killing lions and tigers.

LUTZ: Well, you know, it's never easy to kill anything. We have a lot of deputies that deer hunt. This is along those same kind of lines, but deer always run away from you. These exotic animals do not. And it's a situation where it's very scary. You know, we're not talking about the average pet. We're talking about a 300-pound Bengal tiger, and we're talking about bears that go from two to 300 pounds.

And, I mean, all these killings were senseless. You know, you never want to have to do this, especially to an exotic animal. But to keep this thing contained to this farm, like we have done, is, you know, it's just unbelievable.

BLOCK: Well, Sheriff Lutz, thanks for talking with us today.

LUTZ: All right. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Sheriff Matt Lutz of Muskingum County, Ohio.

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