ZANESVILLE, US // Schools closed and motorists were warned to stay in their vehicles yesterday after almost 50 wild animals escaped from a preserve.
Officers with assault rifles patrolled the rural area in eastern Ohio a day after police killed dozens of predators from the private zoo, where the owner was found dead.
As authorities hunted the remaining bears, big cats and other beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm, speculation about what happened to the owner mounted.
"Anything is a possibility at this point," the county sheriff, Matt Lutz, told NBC's Today show when asked if the owner, Terry Thompson, may have killed himself.
Mr Lutz, who had earlier said the death was not suspicious, added that the authorities were awaiting autopsy results.
Flashing signs along area motorways warned motorists "caution, exotic animals" and "stay in vehicle".
The animals' cages had been opened and the farm's fences left unsecured, police said. It was "very possible" Mr Thompson left the cages open, Sheriff Lutz said.
Almost 30 of the 48 animals were shot and killed on Tuesday.
"Once daybreak hits, we're going back in to get an accountability of how many animals have been put down, how many animals are still penned up," the sheriff told NBC.
The preserve in Zanesville, about 35 kilometres east of Columbus, had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears.
Police said bears and wolves were among the escaped animals that were killed and there were numerous sightings of exotic animals along a nearby motorway.
Sheriff Lutz called the animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said they had been fed on Monday.
Danielle White, whose father's property is beside the reserve, did not see loose animals but had in 2006, when a lion escaped. "It's always been a fear of mine knowing [the reserve] had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a lion roar all night. [Mr Thompson] was in hot water because of the animals, permits and [animals] escaping all the time."
Mr Lutz said his office started getting reports of loose animals late on Tuesday. Four deputies went to the preserve, where they found Thompson dead and the cage doors open.
The sheriff would not say how Thompson, recently released from prison, 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 orang-utans and chimps in his home but those were still in their cages, Mr 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.
At nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser said Thompson flew planes, raced boats and owned a motorcycle shop that also sold guns.
"He was pretty unique," Mr Weiser said. "He had a different slant on things. I never knew him to hurt anybody and he took good care of the animals. It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals."
Ohio has some of the US's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them. Last summer, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland after opening the cage for a routine feeding. Animal welfare activists wanted the owner charged with reckless homicide but the death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.
The Humane Society of the United States yesterday urged Ohio to issue emergency restrictions on the sale and possession of wild animals.
"How many incidents must we catalogue before the state takes action to crack down on private ownership of dangerous animals?" said the society's president, Wayne Pacelle.