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Ohio zoo returns surviving exotic animals to widow

Workers transport an animal from the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio on Friday as Marian Thompson, center, touches the cage.

An Ohio zoo on Friday returned five surviving exotic animals to a woman whose husband released dozens of wild creatures last fall before he committed suicide.

Two leopards, two primates and a bear have been held at the Columbus zoo since October. State officials had ordered that the animals be quarantined on suspicion of infectious diseases.

Marian Thompson of Zanesville had been appealing the order, and on Monday it was lifted by Ohio's agriculture director.

Thompson, distinctive in a bright pink shirt and black pants, arrived at a loading area at the zoo around 10:30, driving a pickup truck pulling a silver horse trailer.

Two animals were loaded by hand into the horse trailer in wooden crates, and roaring from the leopards could be heard coming from the crates. A forklift loaded a steel cage, likely carrying the bear. Thompson put her hand on the cage and appeared to be talking to the animal inside as it was put into the trailer.

The monkeys were transported in dog carriers and loaded inside the cab of the truck, with the windows rolled down. Thompson ignored shouted questions from nearby reporters.

Several zoo staffers, including veterinarians and keepers, watched the transfer, with some taking video and still photos. Two United States Agriculture Department inspectors were also on hand with cameras.

Medical results released last week showed all five animals are free of the dangerously contagious or infectious diseases for which they were tested.

Thompson had previously tried to get the animals back from the zoo, but the quarantine prevented her from taking them.

Once the animals are returned to Thompson, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check on their welfare or require improvements to conditions in which they are kept. The state's agriculture department says it will be up to local authorities to be alert to their caretaking.

Thompson is the widow of Terry Thompson, who released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — from his eastern Ohio farm Oct. 18 before he committed suicide. Fearing for the public's safety, authorities killed 48 of the animals.

Three leopards, two Celebes macaques and a bear survived and were taken to the Columbus zoo. One spotted leopard had to be euthanized at the zoo in January. The macaques are small primates; the female weighs about 6 pounds, and the male weighs more than 10 pounds.

The zoo said it raised $44,000 in online donations to help care for the animals, though the actual cost was not known.

It's unclear whether the animals were headed back to the Zanesville farm, though live TV helicopter video of the trailer appeared to show them heading east toward Zanesville.

Thompson's attorney has told the state's agriculture department that his client has adequate cages for the surviving animals.

Others have questioned conditions at the farm, including Tom Stalf, the Columbus zoo's chief operating officer.

Stalf has said in a sworn statement that he was at the Thompsons' property the day the animals were released. He said he saw two primates held in separate, small bird cages, along with a brown bear that was kept in a cage that wasn't fit for its size.

Terry Thompson's suicide, the animals' release and their killings led lawmakers to re-examine the state's restrictions on exotic pets, which are considered some of the nation's weakest.

Authorities in Ohio buried 49 dead exotic animals that were freed yesterday in Zanesville. The few that survived were taken to the Columbus Zoo. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

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