Bears, tigers, lions and wolves escape from Ohio zoo

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Media caption,

Sheriff Matt Lutz and wildlife expert Jack Hanna on the situation in Ohio

Police have shot and killed dozens of exotic animals that escaped from a private zoo in Zanesville, Ohio.

Sheriff Matt Lutz said he personally gave the order to shoot the escaped animals, including grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, tigers and lions.

On Wednesday, Mr Lutz said police believe they have now accounted for all 56 animals except one monkey.

The animals' owner, Terry Thompson, was found dead at the zoo, and police believe he killed himself.

Mr Lutz said a preliminary investigation suggested Mr Thompson left fences open at the farm.

'Incredibly dangerous'

Officials said the "volatile situation" of animals escaping from the 73-acre (29-hectare) Muskingum County Animal Farm and the approach of nightfall on Tuesday had prompted the shoot-to-kill order.

Forty-eight of the 56 animals were then shot dead on the sheriff's orders.

Among those killed were 17 lions and 18 Bengal tigers. US nature TV host Jack Hanna said the killing of the tigers was especially tragic as there were only about 1,400 remaining in the world.

Six animals - three leopards, one grizzly bear and two monkeys - were captured and have been sent to the nearby Columbus Zoo. One wolf was also found dead, leaving just a monkey unaccounted for.

Staff from the nearby Columbus Zoo were called on to tranquilise the roaming animals.

Mr Hanna, a former director of Columbus Zoo, in the nearby Ohio state capital, said tranquilising animals in the dark was incredibly dangerous, and told reporters that "the sheriff did the right thing".

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The shoot-to-kill order has been criticised, but also supported by one wildlife expert

"You cannot tranquilise an animal like this, a bear or a leopard or a tiger [at night]," Mr Hanna told ABC before the news conference.

"If you do that, the animal gets very excited, it goes and hides, and then we have [police officers] in danger of losing their life, and other people."

Sheriff's Deputy Jonathan Merry was one of the first to respond to the incident.

Mr Hanna said the scope of the event was immense.

"This is like Noah's Ark wrecking here in Zanesville," he said.

He shot a gray wolf and a black bear, firing his pistol as the bear charged at him. The policeman said the bear was about 7ft (2m) away when he killed it with a single round.

"All these animals have the ability to take a human out in the length of a second," he told the Associated Press news agency.

Lax regulation

Overnight, police have urged people in Zanesville to stay indoors and flashing signs along nearby highways told motorists: "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle".

Several local school districts cancelled classes.

"We didn't want kids waiting by the bus stop and seeing these big animals," Mr Lutz said.

Police have several suspects in custody after they attempted to steal one of the animals Tuesday evening.

Another animal was struck by a car on a nearby highway.

Ohio has some of America's most lax regulation of exotic pets, reports say - and some of the country's highest rates of injuries and deaths caused by them.

In 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The death was eventually ruled a workplace accident.

Sheriff Lutz said his office began getting phone calls at about 17:30 local time (21:30 GMT) on Tuesday, saying animals were loose on a road just west of the town.

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Dead animals were scattered around Zanesville on Wednesday morning

Four armed deputies were dispatched to the zoo, where they found Mr Thompson's body and the animal cages open. Several aggressive animals found near the body were shot, Mr Lutz said.

Mr Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the largely rural area.

"This is a bad situation," Mr Lutz said. "It's been a situation for a long time."

Federal Division of Wildlife officers were drafted in to help with the situation, a local official said.

A neighbour of Mr Thompson, Danielle White, said he had been in legal trouble, and police said he had recently been released from jail.

A colourful character

"He was in hot water because of the animals, because of permits, and [the animals] escaping all the time," Ms White said. A few weeks ago, she said, she had to avoid some camels grazing on the side of a freeway.

Mr Thompson had been released from federal prison three weeks earlier after serving a one-year term on firearms charges, according to the AFP news agency.

His farm was reportedly raided June 2008, seizing more than 100 guns.

A local resident, Bill Weiser, said Mr Thompson had been a colourful character who flew planes, raced boats and owned a custom motorcycle shop which also sold guns.

"He was pretty unique," Mr Weiser told AP. "He had a different slant on things. I never knew him to hurt anybody, and he took good care of the animals."