The miracle of the great Zanesville zoo escape—which began last fall when a depressed, desperate man named Terry Thompson set free his vast collection of exotic animals—was that not a single innocent person was hurt. The incident made global news. It also thrust into daylight, if only for a brief moment, a secret world of privately owned exotic animals living off the grid, and often right next door. We sent Chris Heath to Zanesville, Ohio, to find out where the wild things are—and what the hell they’re doing there.
A little before five o’clock on the evening of October 18, 2011, as the day began to ebb away, a retired schoolteacher named Sam Kopchak left the home he shared with his 84-year-old mother and headed into the paddock behind their house to attend to the horse he’d bought nine days earlier. Red, a half-Arabian pinto, was acting skittish and had moved toward the far corner of the field. On the other side of the flimsy fence separating them from his neighbor Terry Thompson’s property, Kopchak noticed that Thompson’s horses seemed even more agitated. They were circling, and in the center of their troubled orbit there was some kind of dark shape. Only when the shape broke out of the circle could Kopchak see that it was a black bear.
Kopchak wasn’t overly alarmed by this sight, unexpected as it was, maybe because the bear wasn’t too big as black bears go, and maybe because it was running away from him. He knew what he’d do: put Red in the barn, go back to the house, report what he’d seen. This plan soon had to be revised. He and Red had taken only a few steps toward the barn when Kopchak saw something else, close by, just ahead of them on the other side of the fence. Just sitting there on the ground, facing their way. A fully grown male African lion.
Kopchak had lived around here all of his life. The road his and Thompson’s properties abutted was named Kopchak Road after his great-uncle. Before he retired four years ago, he used to teach seventh-grade science. He didn’t know too much about lions, but he had heard that it was unwise to challenge them by looking them in the eye, and that if you ran away they had a tendency to chase you. So he settled on what he considered a brisk walking pace for himself and Red. He only looked back once, when they were about a third of the way to the barn. The lion was in the same place as a moment ago, still on the other side of the fence, though it was quite obvious that the animal could get over the fence anytime it wanted to.
Inside the barn Kopchak locked the doors, then telephoned his mother, sitting in front of the TV about a hundred yards away back in the house. There was, he told her, “a major problem.” They’d long known that there were strange and unusual animals kept out of sight over the brow of the hill around Thompson’s house—often they could hear lions bellow and roar. “We didn’t have any idea how many there were,” Mrs. Kopchak would later reflect. But they assumed that these two runaways must have come from there, so the first thing Mrs. Kopchak did was to dial her neighbor’s number.
Only then did she call 911 and alert the world. She sounded calm when she reported what her son had seen, as though there was really nothing too strange or alarming about a lion and a bear running loose on an October afternoon in Ohio. But maybe she was a little rattled. When the 911 operator asked for her first name, Mrs. Kopchak answered “Dolores,” the name on her birth certificate but one she never uses: “I’ve been called Dolly for eighty-four years.”
Her son remained trapped in the barn. From there, looking through a north-facing window, he watched the menagerie grow. Along came a wolf. And a second bear, this one much larger than the first. And there was the lion he had seen before, now pacing back and forth. And also a lioness, anxiously scuttering around. “And then,” he says, “I saw a tiger. I’m telling you, the lion is bad enough, and the lioness is bad enough, and the wolf is bad, and the bear, but…don’t be around the tiger. The tigers are actually bigger than the lions if they’re fully grown. He started snarling, and went after the horses.”