Ohio’s Tiger King

Before Joe Exotic and Netflix’s Tiger King hit the airwaves, Ohio had its own Tiger King. Many still question his tragic end.


Netflix’s wildly popular Tiger King has sparked renewed interest in the tragic tale of a Zanesville man and the wild animal escape of 2011.

Before Joe Exotic and Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness hit the airwaves, Ohio had its own Tiger King, the late Terry Thompson. Like Joe Exotic, Thompson had an affinity for fast cars, guns and collecting wild exotic animals.

After purchasing two Bengal cubs in 1977, Thompson was hooked. The Vietnam veteran started a 73-acre wild animal sanctuary in Zanesville where he housed a wide array of creatures, from macaws to bears.

Ohio’s Tiger King, sadly, had a much more tragic fate than Joe Exotic. What happened on Thompson’s sanctuary would lead to the state adopting some of the strictest wild animal laws in the nation.

Police say that on Oct. 18, 2011, in an act of anger and revenge, Thompson set loose dozens of dangerous wild animals into the city of Zanesville, population 25,000, before committing suicide by shooting himself in the head.

In the hours that followed, law enforcement and an army of volunteers carrying high-powered weapons massacred numerous wild animals, including 18 tigers, 17 lions, 8 bears 3 cougars, 2 wolves and a baboon.

Terry Thompson

Thompson had recently been released from federal prison, where he served a year on gun charges, and his wife of 40 years left him, setting the stage for a mental breakdown that led to the release of the animals, said authorities.

Several of the animals were shot dead in their cages, including some young tiger cubs, according to sanctuary caretaker John Moore, who told his story to author Teresa Headley in the book, Eighteen Days to the Massacre. 

Thompson’s body was discovered on a horse trail in the sanctuary. It was reportedly was being eaten by a Siberian tiger. According to the sanctuary caretaker, police said Thompson used his left hand to fire the weapon, even though he was right-handed and his left arm had a fresh injury where he had been clawed.

Another interesting detail is that Thompson used a Muskingum County deputy’s pistol to shoot himself, said Moore.

There was no crime scene investigation and police did not follow up on other details, like who purchased the bullets for the pistol,  even though a receipt was found near the crime scene, according to Moore.

Other little-known details of Thompson’s death also are revealed in the book.

Many have disputed law enforcement’s claims that Thompson would jeopardize the lives of his beloved animals and commit suicide.

One of the people who spoke out on behalf of Thompson was Joe Exotic, himself.

Not long after the Zanesville massacre, Joe Exotic produced a video for Joe Exotic TV entitled The Lion Sleeps Tonight. In the video, he explained why he did not believe Thompson released the animals and committed suicide.

“There are so many questions people have that were never brought to light by the police department …” said Joe Exotic, including the timeline of the events, which he said do not add up.

Joe Exotic pointed out that Thompson’s leopards were the only cats that were not released that day. “Leopards are the most dangerous of the big cats,” said Exotic. “He would have let the most aggressive animals out if he wanted to cause mayhem for the town and community.”

Also, the valuable animals, like Celebes apes, which he said are worth about $10,000 each,  were not released from their cages.

Joe Exotic pointed out that authorities chose not to use tranquilizing or paralyzing agents, even though two Ohio zoos were called to help and that these would have been available. These and other questions have not been answered.

He said there also were no crime scene pictures taken.

Several years before Thompson died, he began selling firearms as a way to finance the feeding, housing and care of his animals. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives eventually caught on and charged Thompson with possession of 133 unregistered firearms.

While at the property, ATF agents said they noticed animals being kept in horrible conditions. However no charges were brought against Thompson for animal neglect or abuse. Thompson attempted to fight the firearms charges, but he eventually pled guilty as money ran out to defend himself in court.

Shortly after the Zanesville tragedy, Senate Bill 310 which contained new, stricter Exotic Rules and Regulations was enacted. Ohio went from having some of the nation’s loosest laws on private exotic animal ownership to having some of the toughest.

Owners had to register and micro-chip their animals, and meet strict standards on housing, training, transportation, insurance and enclosures. The law also prohibited the acquisition of more animals — except for certain species — and the state could seize animals from owners who failed to meet the standards. Animals that did not meet the new criteria were surrendered by owners or were seized by the state and taken to a facility in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

In 2013, the ODOA disclosed that the new $2.9 million, 17,920-square-foot Dangerous Wild Animal Temporary Holding Facility had been built to accommodate the animals.