By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Five wild animals will soon be returned to the widow of a man who released them into the Ohio countryside last year, state officials said on Monday, raising concerns of a repeat of the panic that gripped the state when dozens of beasts including lions, tigers and bears roamed free.
Seven months after Terry Thompson released 56 exotic animals near Zanesville, Ohio, and then committed suicide, the Ohio legislature still is struggling to draft regulations on wild animal ownership. Ohio is one of only a handful of states with no restrictions on exotic animal ownership.
The state Agriculture Department said on Monday it had no legal way to prevent the five remaining animals - a spotted leopard, a black leopard, two Celebes Macaque monkeys and a brown bear - from being given to Thompson's widow.
Marian Thompson has said she will take them back to the farm and put them in the cages they fled last October.
"This raises concerns, as she has indicated the cages have not been repaired, and has repeatedly refused to allow animal welfare experts to evaluate if conditions are safe for the animals and sufficient to prevent them from escaping and endangering the community," the Agriculture Department said.
The only hope of preventing the animals' return to the Thompson family within 24 hours is for the county Humane Society to seek a court order to inspect the farm, the agency said.
"I'd love to take the law into my own hands, but I don't have the authority to do it," Governor John Kasich said.
The local Humane Society could not immediately be reached for comment, nor could Marian Thompson or her attorney.
Terry Thompson had been charged with animal cruelty 11 times in the seven years before he released the animals last October. Law enforcement warned residents to stay inside and went on a big game hunt, killing 49 of the 56 animals.
Six animals were captured and sent to the Columbus Zoo but one spotted leopard later died there. Another animal was presumed eaten by others and was never accounted for.
The animals have been held in quarantine at the zoo for months to watch for infectious diseases and undergo numerous tests and all have been determined free of disease.
Columbus Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said on Monday the quarantine was being lifted and it would be up to Thompson to arrange the safe transfer of the animals.
"We didn't know this was coming, so it could take a couple of days," Peters said. "It's not like going to the pet store and picking up a dog."
The state Senate passed a bill last week that would ban Ohio residents from buying lions, tigers, bears, elephants, wolves, alligators, crocodiles, and certain kinds of monkeys as pets, unless they follow strict guidelines.
Existing owners of wild animals would be allowed to keep them if they follow the new rules, which would include permit fees, registration and constructing proper facilities. The Ohio House may not vote on the measure until the end of May.
(Additional reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Greg McCune and Bill Trott)