Lions, tigers, bears and cheetahs were on the prowl in and around Zanesville, as residents cowered indoors. Flashing signs along highways warned motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."
Officers in the mostly rural area about 55 miles east of Columbus were under orders to shoot to kill for fear that animals hit with tranquilizer darts would run off and hide in the darkness.
After an all-night hunt, police say nearly 50 animals, including 18 rare bengal tigers and 17 lions, were gunned down.
Six animals were captured and transferred to the Columbus Zoo.
Authorities say the owner of the preserve, Terry Thompson, killed himself, but left no suicide note.
Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo and a nationally known wild animal expert, defended the sheriff against criticism that the animals should have been captured alive.
"What was he to do at nighttime with tigers and lions, leopards, going out there?" Hanna said. "In the wild this would be a different situation."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.