Ohio town under siege as animals take control

A sign warns passing motorists about exotic animals on the loose from a wildlife preserve October 19, 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio (Jay LaPrete / Getty Images / AFP)
A small town in Ohio is under lockdown today after a zoo-keeper apparently committed suicide, but not before releasing dozens of dangerous, exotic animals that are now on the prowl.

Authorities have shot and killed several but many are still reportedly loose.

“These are wild animals, wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa,” Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz told reporters on Tuesday night.

Among the beasts that have escaped are lions, cheetahs, bears, tigers, wolves, camels and giraffes. In all 48 animals are believed to have escaped after the owner’s death.

Authorities in Zanesville, Ohio began receiving phone calls at around 5:30 pm yesterday from concerned citizens who were spotting dangerous animals walking the streets of the city. Due to complications with trying to take down the animals after dark, authorities were unable to properly act until daybreak this morning. On Tuesday evening, seven square miles of the city had been quarantined as officers attempted to tranquilize the escaped animals, but during a late-morning press conference today, it was confirmed that several of the escaped animals were still roaming town as police investigated the mysterious death of the zookeeper.

“This is a bad situation,” Lutz added.

Terry Thompson of Zanesville, Ohio was found dead by authorities at the animal preserve he operates around 55 miles east of Columbus after the reports began to come in. When officials approached his body when arriving on the scene, they were met by several aggressive animals which they shot and killed.

Around 50 officials from the highway patrol unit, municipal police, sheriff’s department and state Division of Wildlife attempted to patrol the animals late Tuesday, but were met with inclement weather. Authorities were concerned that some of the more cunning animals would take refuge in the area’s wooded areas, unable to be found by police.

Thompson had only recently been released from federal prison after serving a year for weapons charges. Investigators add that he had been the subject of several probes in the past for reports of animal abuse and neglect. He is believed to have taken his own life.

Because animals often become agitated and frightened when tranquilized at night, authorities were largely unable to tame the animals during the early morning hours. Law enforcement has been told to shoot-to-kill the beasts as they encounter them, to which wildlife expert Jack Hanna told ABC News this morning was the right thing to do.

"Human life has to come first but that's what we have to look for. We have to take care of our animal life. You cannot tranquilize an animal at night. It's hard enough during the daytime," said Hanna.

Several area schools were closed today to keep children safe from attacks from the bears, wolves and other beasts. By 10 a.m. ET, it was reported that more than ten animals were still believed to be on the prowl. Speaking to CNN just before noon today, Lutz thought the number to closer to three, citing a wolf, mountain lion "and possibly a monkey" still roaming town.

Hanna has cautioned the townspeople, "If you see one of these animals, you do not run. You yell and scream.”