ZANESVILLE, Ohio Oct. 20, 2011— -- A Zanesville cop who was hunting down ferocious animals released by their owner came within just a few feet of being mauled by a charging bear, killing the animal with a single shot from his service revolver.
The black bear dropped dead just seven feet from Deputy Jonathan Merry, he told ABC News.
Merry and other deputies relived their efforts to stalk tigers, lions, wolves and bears into a rainy night that at times left them feeling like the hunted. By Wednesday afternoon, 49 of the 50 animals released by Terry Thompson were confirmed dead, ending a potentially catastrophic threat to people in the area.
Merry, an animal lover who grew up on a farm, was the second officer to arrive at Thompson's private preserve in Zanesville, Ohio, Tuesday evening. Thompson had killed himself with a handgun moments after releasing his dangerous menagerie.
Merry, 25, arrived to find a Bengal tiger, two black bears and a female African lion contained by nothing more than a livestock fence along the roadway.
When a wolf started running south, the officer followed it in his patrol car.
"It turned west, which is opposite, even further of the Thompson residence. I was then instructed by my sergeant over the radio to take the wolf down," Merry said.
He pursued the wolf into a hay field, got out of his vehicle and shot it.
But soon, he was facing another, much larger, problem. His commanding officer told him a lion had been cornered back at the Thompson home. He headed back, but instead of finding a lion, he was confronted by an angry bear.
"The black bear turned in my direction and ran directly towards me," Merry told ABC News. "I fortunately was able to pull my duty pistol, fired one shot, killing the animal instantly. The black bear fell approximately fell seven feet in front of me."
The harrowing night continued. After shooting the bear he then targeted a lioness that had escaped the livestock fence and had starting running along the roadway in the opposite direction of the Thompson home.
"I then also fired on and killed the lion," Merry said.
Fred Polk watched in disbelief as he watched the bear charge Merry and a lion leap over a fence into his yard about 5 p.m. Tuesday night.
"One of the bears charged the deputy and the deputy shot it. After that one of the lions jumped the fence come down here and the deputy shot it in my front yard," Polk said.
After that, Merry told ABC News he couldn't remember if he shot any others.
"The events that happened last night were extremely unfortunate and I feel like me and the other deputies were forces into this situation due to Ohio's lax laws in reference to exotic animals," he said.
The officer who said he "loved animals all my life," believes what he did was necessary.
"I am sworn to protect the citizens of this country and I feel me and the other deputies did that by doing what we unfortunately had to," Merry said.
Deputy Todd Kanavel said tracking the animals during the rainy night was terrifying.
"It was scary out there in the dark knowing those animals were roaming around," Kanavel told the Zanesville Times Recorder. "But what's scarier is the thought that one of those big cats or bears could get hold of a child. We're all upset about this. It's not a happy situation at all."
The reasons behind Thompson's suicide and release of his animals remains a mystery.
Just seconds after Thompson set his beloved animals free and shot himself with a handgun, an animal bit him in the head, and likely dragged him along the driveway where he was eventually found, police said today.
The bite wound on Terry Thompson's head was "consistent with the bite from a larger type cat," Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz said.
Thompson's body was found near a pile of chicken parts. Lutz said Thompson often used chicken to feed the animals, but it's unclear whether he had intended to draw the animals to his body.
Thompson's Suicide a Mystery
Thompson, who was 61, had just been released from serving a year in prison on an illegal firearms conviction, and according to investigators he has been cited in the past for animal abuse and neglect.
His wife had apparently left him a few months ago. Late Wednesday, Marian Thompson refused to answer questions from reporters, though she did cooperate with police to account for the animals.
According to authorities she begged them not to take away those that remained.
At this point, the only animal still unaccounted for is a macaque monkey that may be infected with the Herpes B virus.
Lutz said it "could be on the loose; however we have had no reported sightings." The missing monkey has likely already been killed by one of the large cats, Lutz said, just as another monkey had been.
The animals that were slaughtered between Tuesday and Wednesday included 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, a pair of grizzlies, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon.
The dead animals were buried on the preserve Wednesday, Lutz said.
The six surviving animals are currently at the Columbus Zoo where they are getting around the clock care.
Wildlife expert and former director of the Columbus Zoo Jack Hanna told ABC News that the tragedy in Zanesville is the worst that he has seen in 45 years.
"I'm sorry to say, but what the sheriff did had to be done," Hanna said. "Otherwise, we would have had carnage out here in Zanesville, Ohio.
The Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is working with wildlife expert Jack Hanna to create new regulations in the state for nonnative animals so this kind of disaster never happens again.
Lutz said a task force has already been assembled and they're about six weeks away from the new restrictions.
"I think the citizens of Ohio are entitled to have safety precautions in place," he said.