COLUMBUS, Ohio - The six surviving exotic animals freed by their suicidal owner in Ohio will be kept under quarantine at a zoo for now instead of going to the man's widow, the state Agriculture Department ordered Thursday.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was trying to stop Marian Thompson from reclaiming three leopards, two primates and a young grizzly bear that have been cared for by the zoo since last week, when Terry Thompson mysteriously set them free in a rural area of eastern Ohio.
The zoo said it had Marian Thompson's permission to care for the six surviving animals, which have been kept separate from other animals, but has no legal rights to them. A private veterinarian for the Agriculture Department looked at the animals and determined they needed to remain quarantined, as allowed by Ohio law.
The Agriculture Department said it was concerned about reports that the animals had lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease, and the order provides a chance to investigate their health. It prevents the zoo from releasing them until it's clear they're disease-free.
It appeared Thompson had planned to take them back to the farm near Zanesville, department spokesman Andy Ware said.
Thompson and her lawyer were informed of the order when they arrived at the zoo with a big truck on Thursday afternoon. The order is indefinite, but Thompson is entitled to a hearing within 30 days if she wants to appeal. Her attorney was traveling with her and could not be reached for comment.
The animals have appeared healthy, perhaps a bit underweight, but the zoo did not conduct its standard medical tests because it doesn't own the creatures, zoo President and CEO Dale Schmidt said.
"These animals are the innocents in this situation and our job is to really take care of them as much as we can and make sure their welfare is looked out for," Schmidt said.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets, and efforts to strengthen the regulations have taken on new urgency since Terry Thompson opened the cages at his farm last week, freeing four dozen animals that were later shot by authorities.
Officers were ordered to kill the animals - including rare Bengal tigers, lions and bears - instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said his office isn't taking a stance on whether the creatures should return to Zanesville but was evaluating that option.
"If she wants to bring them back here, to this farm, then we're working on what we're allowed legally to do to make sure that everything is safe and appropriate," Lutz said.
Sam Kopchak, whose property abuts Thompson's, said he has mixed feelings about whether Marian Thompson should get the animals back, because he found himself standing about 30 feet from an escaped lion before it was killed. He said he feels for Thompson and recognizes her loss but would prefer not to have lions and tigers as neighbors.
"I'd rather them not be here after what I experienced because of having the animals being out in the situation we were in," he said Thursday. "And I think most of the neighbors around here would probably say the same thing."
It's not unusual for Ohio to issue an animal health quarantine, and it does so about 150 times annually, said Ware, the Agriculture Department spokesman.
Until earlier this year, Ohio was under an executive order that banned the buying and selling of exotic animals, but the newly elected Kasich let it expire, saying the regulations were not enforceable. He last week put temporary measures in place to crack down on private ownership. A study committee has until Nov. 30 to draft permanent legislation.
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.