The fences had been left unsecured at the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville, in east-central Ohio, and the animals' cages were open, police said. They wouldn't say what animals escaped but said the preserve had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears.
They said bears and wolves were among 25 escaped animals that had been shot and killed and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.
"These are wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa," Sheriff Matt Lutz warned at a press conference.
He called the escaped animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said a caretaker told authorities the preserve's 48 animals had been fed on Monday. He said police were patrolling the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars, not on foot, and were concerned about big cats and bears hiding in the dark and in trees.
"This is a bad situation," Lutz said. "It's been a situation for a long time."
Lutz said his office started getting phone calls at about 5:30 p.m. that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70.
He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the animal farm, where they found the owner, Terry Thompson, dead and all the animal cage doors open. He wouldn't say how Thompson died but said several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot.
Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in his home, but those were still in their cages, Lutz said.
The deputies, who saw many other animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them on sight. They said there had been no reports of injuries among the public.
Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals.
The sheriff said caretakers might put food in the animals' open cages to try to lure them back.
Lutz said people should stay indoors and he might ask for local schools to close Wednesday. At least four school districts in the area canceled classes.
Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public.
"Any kind of cat species or bear species is what we are concerned about," Lutz said. "We don't know how much of a head start these animals have on us."
A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which usually handles native wildlife, such as deer, said state Division of Wildlife officers were helping the sheriff's office cope with the exotic animals in Zanesville, a city of about 25,000 residents.
"This is, I would say, unique," spokeswoman Laura Jones said.
Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.
In the summer of 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The caretaker had opened the bear's cage at exotic-animal keeper Sam Mazzola's property for a routine feeding.
Though animal-rights activists had wanted Mazzola charged with reckless homicide, the caretaker's death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.
This summer, Mazzola was found dead on a water bed, wearing a mask and with his arms and legs restrained, at his home in Columbia Township, about 15 miles southwest of Cleveland.
It was unclear how many animals remained on the property when he died, but he had said in a bankruptcy filing in May 2010 that he owned four tigers, a lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked his license to exhibit animals after animal rights activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.
Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said. The state requires permits for bears but doesn't regulate the ownership of nonnative animals, such as lions and tigers.