Several of the animals were shot dead on the farm, after police failed to contain them with tranquilliser guns[Reuters]

Dozens of exotic animals, including tigers, lions and bears were let loose on Ohio farmland by their owner before he committed suicide, sparking a shoot-to-kill hunt in which 48 of the wild beasts, including 18 endangered Bengal tigers, have been killed.

Schools were shut and panicked residents were told to stay inside on Wednesday as the animals roamed inside and outside the 73-acre farm near Zanesville in eastern Ohio.

Authorities killed 48 of the 56 animals, some at close range, including the tigers, six black bears, two grizzlies and 17 lions, said Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz.

A monkey, possibly carrying the Herpes B virus, and a gray wolf remained at large, he told an afternoon news conference.

One of the escaped big cats reached an interstate highway and was hit by a car.

Authorities posted electronic warning signs, "Caution Exotic Animals" for motorists.

"We are not talking about your normal everyday house cat or dog. These are 300-pound Bengal tigers that we had to put down," Lutz said. "I gave the order-that if animals looked like they were on their way out, they were put down."

The dead animals have been buried on the farm, he said. Survivors were taken to the Columbus Zoo, including three leopards, a grizzly and two macaque monkeys.

Record of violations

Owner Terry Thompson, who had been charged with animal cruelty 11 times since 2004, was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted wound when authorities went to the farm on Tuesday after reports of animals running free, Lutz said.

They found gates and animal pens open, but no suicide note.

"There were animals running loose outside the fenced area," he said. Some, including primates, were captured at the farm.

Lutz said animals kept at the farm included many types of big cats such as cheetahs, mountain lions and leopards, in addition to lions and tigers.

Authorities said they had received nearly 35 calls about the menagerie over the years, ranging from animals running loose to animals not being treated properly, Lutz said.

"We've handled numerous complaints here, we've done numerous inspections here," he said. "So this has been a huge problem for us for a number of years."

There were complaints that Thompson left horses undernourished, then fed them to lions when they died, said Larry Hostetler, executive director of the Muskingum County Animal Shelter.

However, he met the bare minimum requirements for keeping the animals, he said.

Thompson was released last month from federal prison on a firearms conviction.

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, told the news conference Lutz and his deputies had taken the appropriate action.

"These are dangerous animals," Hanna said. "If you had 18 Bengal tigers running around these neighborhoods, you wouldn't have wanted to see what would have happened."

Source: Agencies