According to court records, Terry Thompson and his wife had money problems dating back to the 1990s. Their debt had escalated recently and they owed at least $68,000 in unpaid income and property taxes.
Thompson's collection of animals included black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, leopards and other exotic creatures. The 62-year-old unleashed them from his private Muskingum County Animal Farm near Zanesville, and then shot himself. Authorities had to hunt down and kill or capture the animals as they roamed the rural area, and only one monkey is unaccounted for.
Thompson's body was found near the empty cages with a bite wound on the head that appeared to have been from a large cat, like a Bengal tiger, said county Sheriff Matt Lutz. Investigators have refused to speculate on his motive.
Thompson and his wife owed $56,000 in unpaid income taxes to the IRS and $12,000 in property taxes to the county. He also had two federal tax liens filed against him last year around the same time he was sentenced to a year in prison for possessing unregistered guns. Thompson got out of prison just last month.
A spokeswoman from Columbus Zoo said Thompson had rescued some of the animals at his preserve and bought many others. A neighbor said the couple spent much of their time and money caring for the animals.
Family friend Judy Hatfield said most of the big cats and bears were declawed and had been bottle-fed by Thompson and his wife since the animals were babies.
"I know how much he cared for them, and he would know that they would be killed," Hatfield said.
Lutz said he spoke with Thompson's wife and that she was distraught over the loss of her husband and the animals.
"You have to understand these animals were like kids to her," Lutz said. "She probably spent more time with these animals than some parents do spend with their kids."
Deputies shot 48 animals - including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions. Animal rights advocates agreed there was little local authorities could have done to save the dangerous creatures once they began roaming the area.
Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo, also defended the sheriff's decision to kill the animals.
Six animals - three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys - were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo. A wolf was later found dead, leaving a monkey as the only animal possibly still unaccounted for in the mostly rural community of farms, widely spaced homes and wooded areas about 55 miles east of Columbus.
Authorities said the slain animals would be buried on Thompson's farm.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.