Exotic Animal Owner Terry Thompson: What Happened?

10/22/2011 at 04:20 PM EDT

Terry Thompson: Ohio Zoo Owner The Inside Story
Terry Thompson
Courtesy Dr. Robert Masone
Terry Thompson died under the most dramatic of circumstances.

The 62-year-old owner of an exotic animal farm freed his 56 wild animals on Tuesday (including lions, Bengal tigers, wolves and cheetahs) before taking his own life. Authorities killed 49 of the animals to protect the public and said the one lone monkey that's not accounted for was probably eaten by a tiger.

But six of the animals were tranquilized and taken to an area zoo. So who are those animals – and who is the man behind the most bizarre massacre in recent memory?

Above all, friends say, Thompson was an animal lover.



When Dr. Robert Masone visited Thompson's farm last November, he was astounded at what he saw.

"If I could describe what I felt that day on that farm with one word it was love," says Masone, an anesthesiologist in Lancaster, Ohio, who'd been friends with Thompson for 15 years.

"Every animal was well taken care of. Every animal had a name. He'd call them over to the fence and they kissed him – even the grizzly bear. When he did that, Terry said, 'Oh, I had a girlfriend in high school who kissed better than that.' He was a true Dr. Doolittle."

His surviving animals – three leopards, two monkeys and a bear – were taken to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Tuesday, even though Thompson's wife Marian tearfully told director emeritus Jack Hanna that she wanted to care for them herself.

"She said, 'I've lost my husband, I've lost all my family now, and now you're taking my children,' " Hanna tells PEOPLE. "I held her there for three to four minutes [and said] 'Please let me take your animals. I'll take care of your children.' She said, 'O.K., O.K. …' "

A Troubled Past

Masone made his visit to the farm not long before Thompson went to prison on federal gun charges. A Vietnam veteran, Thompson was released to a local halfway house in August, then went home on Sept. 30.

His friends believe the farm and his already shaky finances (he owed $68,000 to the IRS and county in back taxes and had two federal liens placed on his property last year, according to the AP) got worse while Thompson was behind bars. They say that his wife left him not long after.

"While he was in prison, I guess that Marian had a really hard time taking care of the animals," says Max Perdue, 63, who'd known Thompson for 40 years. "Lawyer fees and everything just about broke him."

Court records show Thompson's longtime battles with the authorities and with neighbors. While he was convicted of one animal cruelty case in 2005 (some dead cattle were found on his property), he beat other, similar accusations against him in 2008.

"I think he felt the pressure of people turning on him and watching him because of what he did, his whole life," adds Masone, who says Thompson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"If a man has nowhere to turn, he despairs and he took his own life," says Masone. "He wasn't thinking right and thought he was helping the animals by giving them their freedom before he left them. He'd been pushed to the limit and he snapped."

Labor of Love

Thompson began raising exotic animals in 1977 when he bought a baby lion cub, Simba, as a birthday present for his wife, he told a Zanesville Times Recorder reporter in 2008.

As his collection grew over the next 24 years, he occasionally used them for photo shoots or commercials (video surfaced this week of one of them in a shoot with supermodel Heidi Klum) but raising these animals wasn't about money for Thompson.

"I have them because I love them and am willing to do whatever I have to take care of them," Thompson told Zanesville Times Recorder reporter Kathy Thompson. "What I don't have them for is profit … I have seven veterinarians on call at any time. If one of my bears gets a hangnail, I call a certain vet. If a cat sneezes, I call another vet."

"Terry loved those animals," adds Perdue. "Terry wasn't some kind of nut. He was [driven] to the point where he didn't have any other way out."

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