We Lost a Zoo
February 7, 2012 7:48 AM   Subscribe

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.

Yesterday, Esquire and GQ each published lengthy pieces on the suicide of Terry Thompson and the crisis at his exotic animal zoo in Zanesville, OH. (Previously)

Some background on the coincidence of timing between the two pieces.
posted by Horace Rumpole (35 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Also, warning: Upsetting photo on p. 2 of the GQ story and p. 6 of the Esquire story.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:56 AM on February 7, 2012

Just finished p. 2 of the Esquire story (Esquire always > GQ in my opinion) and came back here to exhale. It is riveting so far, but I will need to keep taking a break for my own sake. Thanks for the Neiman Lab story, too - interesting stuff.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:03 AM on February 7, 2012

Yeah, I got to that image and just. had. to. stop. About to retch here at work.
posted by notsnot at 8:38 AM on February 7, 2012

The stories only overlap on the first two pages of the GQ story, so I suggest reading the entire Esquire piece and then skimming the first few pages of the GQ piece until you get to the bit that's more generally about exotic animal owners, the exotic animal market, and the strangeness of having a bunch of wild animals in random corners of Ohio.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:39 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

the tigers went up. Bullets turned them into birds. They flew
posted by kuatto at 8:39 AM on February 7, 2012 [11 favorites]

It's weird to know somebody personally, and then drift more or less out of touch, and then have him turn into possibly the best magazine writer of his generation.

I admire Chris Jones (the Esquire writer) greatly, but also find seeing his byline on pieces achingly depressing in that special and-what-have-you-done way that comes from seeing a peer excel while you just kind of... get by.
posted by Shepherd at 8:47 AM on February 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

He was the last member of the SWAT team to arrive. He was carrying an M4 assault rifle across his front and an MP5 submachine gun on his back — the Marines had taught him the importance of a smooth transition between weapons — as well as his Glock on his leg. He had eight thirty-round magazines stuffed into the pockets of his cargo pants. He hoped it would be enough.

Remember this when the history of any future social unrest by the proletariet/middle class is written.
posted by spicynuts at 9:06 AM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Perhaps I should feel more pity for Terry Thompson, but after reading those two articles, all I can feel is complete contempt. I don't care about the fact he was in 'Nam or whatever; that doesn't excuse what he did. He was a animal hoarder who hoarded them because he could "own" them. And in the end, he condemned them to death because he wanted to punish his ex-wife.

Fuck this guy.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 9:12 AM on February 7, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'll throw in a bit of literary journalism context here for casual readers who might think this is some routine bit of swordplay between men's magazines.

Chris Jones (Esquire) and Chris Heath (GQ) are two of the flat-out best feature writers working in magazines today. This seems to be some weird sort of star-writer showdown over just the right kind of quirky inside-page news story. (As the background link above puts it, "These are the stories magazines are made for, probing and colorful, with a subject just familiar — and bizarre — enough that readers don’t have to spend much time recalling the basic facts.")

Heath's the veteran in this fight. He's been at it longer - he was the guy reporting about the East European sex trade and stuff like that during the early '90s heyday of Details, and he was one of the main reasons why it was a must-read in those days. I think he's spent too much of his abundant talent on celebrity profiles in the last ten years or so, but I can see why a steady, straightforward gig like that would be appealing to a writer in the phase of his career he's now in (when many magazine writers of his calibre move on to books or fellowships or teaching or anything, really, that offers more stability than freelance writing). And that said, Heath sometimes turns his profiles into feature-writing seminars; I make a good chunk of my living as a magazine feature writer, and I've often said if I was teaching a class in the craft of it, I'd make the students read Heath's Rolling Stone profiles of the Spice Girls and the Prodigy. Both take the fluffiest of subjects and turn them into compelling reads on the pure propulsive style of the pieces alone.

Jones (who, full disclosure, I know very slightly) is the rising star. He cut his teeth on sports writing and still mostly lives there, but Esquire's been giving him room to roam and he's done amazing things with it. His "The Things That Carried Him," which follows one soldier's body back from Iraq, was the talk of the magazine industry when it came out in 2008, and unlike the linkbait contrarian arguments that usually bring attention to a magazine piece, this story fully deserves it.

Point being that if you're a magazine nerd, this isn't just some weird zoo story amid spring fashion layouts. This is two gifted writers - both among the elite of this particular craft - coming at the same story from very different perspectives. It's like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson coming out with novels set in the same parallel universe or something. I haven't read either of them yet - I'll buy both magazines and sit somewhere comfortable one evening and really savour 'em. But I'm reasonably confident in saying this is a rare treat.
posted by gompa at 9:16 AM on February 7, 2012 [29 favorites]

I admire Chris Jones (the Esquire writer) greatly, but also find seeing his byline on pieces achingly depressing in that special and-what-have-you-done way that comes from seeing a peer excel while you just kind of... get by.

Ha! When I heard the news that a high school pal had been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant a few years back, I believe my exact words were: "Awesome! Good for him! I am going to go back to bed for a week!"

posted by scody at 9:17 AM on February 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

One more thing in re the whole GQ/Esquire thing, in case you've got a fashion mag bias or anything: I wouldn't want to put words in either Jones' or Heath's mouths, but if you're wondering why guys like them don't pop up in more self-serious magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic, I'd argue (and they might agree) that those magazines tend to be much more tightly edited into a house style and voice than your hotshot feature writer likes. Whereas Esquire and GQ (among others) have long prided themselves on letting writers explore and experiment with voice and style (which, for your serious mag writer raised on Thompson and Wolfe, is the real big-league game you want to be playing).

The New Yorker in particular, much as I love to read it, pounds most of its features into some version of the same flat-styled, erudite, near-affectless, chronologically ordered piece. (Note, for example, how seemingly every New Yorker piece will, within two grafs of introducing a character, describe in encyclopedic detail what that character looks like and what he or she is wearing.)
posted by gompa at 9:23 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Fucking humans, for God's sake. The animals end up the victims. You need a license for a dog, most cities have a (rarely enforced) limit of two domestic animals per household, but anyone can own a bear or a wolf. Then you have had nutjob convicted drug felons like Sam Mazzola (also in Ohio), who once went up on firearms charges after he was shot by an acquaintence with his own unregistered gun, prancing around with "Ceasar the Wrestling Bear." The Elephant In The Living Room does a good job of desceribing the situation.
posted by Shane at 9:32 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I stayed up too late reading the Esquire article last night. So great. Horrifying and tragic but brilliant. It helped that I knew no humans died.

Merry knocked on the door at the Kopchak house, and Dolores Kopchak answered. He pulled out his notepad, but before he managed to finish his first question — "Ma'am, I understand you saw a bear and a lion..." — he saw a gray wolf run down the middle of Kopchak Road.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:35 AM on February 7, 2012

I forgot to link to the sordid and ironic end of Sam Mazzola, ironic because, by all public accounts (and when I saw him), he was a cokehead macho type of fellow, he and his lackeys taking photos of protesters and threatening them with "We can find where you live."
posted by Shane at 9:36 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can read both articles but you'll never really know the real story.
posted by tommasz at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2012

You need a license for a dog, most cities have a (rarely enforced) limit of two domestic animals per household, but anyone can own a bear or a wolf.

You can have my tiger when you pry it from my cold dead hands.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:49 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've got a python in my pants. Do I need a license for that in the state of NY?
posted by spicynuts at 9:52 AM on February 7, 2012

"He dropped the muzzle of his AR-15..."

There is something about the Esquire article that rubs me wrong. Its style is too reminiscent of war porn, complete with unnecessary details about numbers and types of firearms and gory descriptions of kill shots. It's written like it's a heroic battle in a video game instead of just a bunch of guys gunning down animals. I'm not criticizing the officers: They did what they had to do, in a bad situation not of their own making. But it's a little too glorified here.

And Terry Thompson? What he did... it's nothing short of terrorism and large scale animal cruelty bundled together.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:53 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Official town song: "My Heaven on Earth."
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 10:58 AM on February 7, 2012

Two great articles, and a great post linking them together. For those interested, the GQ article is sort of the same up until page 4, where it goes in to the nitty gritty of exotic animal management, Thompson's personal history, and some other stuff that Esquire doesn't cover.
posted by codacorolla at 11:12 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fascinating stuff, thanks for the post. I read the Esquire article, and just peeked at the GQ, I'll read it tonight. This line from the GQ jumped out as a good illustration of what these police were dealing with:

Then he turned back, intending to deal with a black bear and a tiger along the roadway, but he was distracted by a cougar heading south, so he followed the cougar into another driveway where he met a male African lion coming the other way. He shot the lion while some other deputies shot the cougar.

Holy shit.
posted by marxchivist at 11:18 AM on February 7, 2012

It's written like it's a heroic battle in a video game instead of just a bunch of guys gunning down animals.

I didn't get anything like that from it - I felt it was written like it was a tough battle, whereby people with significant experience suddenly found themselves in a situation where they had very little idea what to do beyond 'can't let the animals get away'.

I was saddened, but not surprised, by all the people that made such a fuss about killing these animals but this is absolutely the worst case scenario for something like this: Exotic animals (the most aggressive there are) with potentially warped/diminished fear of humans through prolonged captivity are let loose in a populated area with no real information on numbers, no trained personnel and it's almost dark.

Much as it is sad as hell seeing those animals there and I wish there had been any other way, I fail to see an alternative (especially now I know more about how little they had to go on at the time) where the police could have protected the population in the area. I think the article portrayed that and the fear inherent in the situation pretty well. It doesn't read as gung ho war porn to me. The gory descriptions show how horrible it is, and I'd rather they did that than sanitize it by saying "Pop, the lion went to sleep".
posted by Brockles at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

"So many of us want to disappear, and have our own community where we can safely keep our monkeys"

- Louisiana monkey owners become 'refugees'
posted by mrgrimm at 12:22 PM on February 7, 2012

And Terry Thompson? What he did... it's nothing short of terrorism and large scale animal cruelty bundled together.

No, it was not terrorism. Terrorism is not a generalized synonym for 'bad thing', or even 'public and scary bad thing'. Please do not let Fox News rewrite the common lexicon.
posted by FatherDagon at 12:58 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Terrorism is not a generalized synonym for 'bad thing', or even 'public and scary bad thing'.

Terrorism as in "with intent to instill terror". Here's a guy who was just released from prison for possessing illegal firearms in his stockpile. His wife had left him. He was in debt and unable to feed his animals. I think it's pretty plausible that he blamed the world for his problems and fully intended these animals to kill and maim people. What would have happened if a few more hours had passed before the escape was noticed?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:12 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I stayed up too late reading the Esquire article last night.

I did the same thing with the GQ article.
I'm glad this is here or I may never have found the Esquire piece. Not sure I want to read it, though.
posted by Seamus at 4:35 PM on February 7, 2012

On a related note, Louis Theroux's jaw-dropping BBC documentary "America's Most Dangerous Pets" is the most interesting thing I've ever seen about exotic pets and their disturbed owners. Here's a clip, and the rest is easily findable online. Louis always asks EXACTLY the impolite question that goes through your mind as you're watching. A Colonel Kurtz-esque madman walks towards Louis with a white tiger on a leash, and Louis asks, "Do you get the same sort of charge from that as you would from riding a Harley, or carrying a big gun?"
posted by scottjlowe at 4:46 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read the Esquire piece, and then the GQ piece. Very different articles. And to have the last page of the GQ article try to work up some sympathy for Terry Thompson rang utterly hollow.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:47 PM on February 7, 2012

I can't feel sorry for Thompson. He had no business with all those animals. I blame him for their sad deaths.
There is a certain sort of suicide who wants to murder as well as to commit suicide.
I felt sorry for the ordinary policemen charged with protecting the people. You could tell they did not like killing these animals.
I felt sorry for the terrified horses and monkeys, and people stuck in their homes and schools. I felt sorry for the other animals.
I understand there were bison, camels and giraffes. Camels are actually a domestic animal. Bison can be dangerous, they need proper fencing. Giraffe are not dangerous. What happened with these animals?
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:10 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My blood runs cold at the Esquire article's description of Thompson's partially eaten body, still being gnawed by a white tiger. How many animals took a bite of him as he sprawled there? How many of those would have become maneaters, having picked up the taste for readily available human flesh? There's no way to know, then or now. It IS miraculous that no animals escaped (in the brush, in the DARK!) and no people were hurt.

I have a friend who's a wildlife rehabilitator who takes in injured and orphaned small mammals. She also takes in a significant number of adult raccoons from people who've been keeping them as pets. People find a baby raccoon and it's so cute and snuggly like a kitten that they keep it, and then the raccoon hits puberty and the owners discover how easily a pissed-off adult raccoon can tear your house apart. A raccoon. This guy keeping and freeing eighteen fucking adult tigers, that's OBSCENE. Thompson must have known full well that setting those animals loose was sentencing them and/or innocent people to death. He's the worst kind of animal owner. Being partially digested tiger crap's too good for him.

Totally heartbreaking to read the officer's descriptions of the animals, all like 'They were so beautiful, I'd never seen anything like them, and I shot them to death.'
posted by nicebookrack at 10:50 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also oh my god, so weirdly glad that all the animals were apparently adults. Both because killing baby animals is awful to contemplate, and because lionesses & tigers & bears with cubs to protect = people would die. horribly.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:03 PM on February 7, 2012

This may be the first event I can think of where I welcomed the presence of so many well-armed men (with an abundance of ammunition!) and the skills to use them in a small town.

I have observed with unease what has been called the militarization of local law enforcement -- but oh man was I glad they had four guys who knew how to how to move and fire in a mutually-supporting group. No, a college doesn't need a SWAT team, but an area with fifty powerful animals in captivity does.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:24 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Somehow this reminds me of a school shooting, rampage murder, or killing spree. Not on the part of the police officers, but in some ways its seems like Thompson, through his animals, was trying to run amok:
Amok is a Malay word for the homicidal sprees occasionally undertaken by lonely, Indochinese men who have suffered a loss of love, a loss of money, or a loss of face. The syndrome has been described in a culture even more remote from the West: the stone-age foragers of Papua New Guinea.

The amok man is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surroundings and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure, and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation. The amok state is chillingly cognitive. It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea. The idea is so standard that the following summary of the amok mind-set, composed in 1968 by a psychiatrist who had interviewed seven hospitalized amoks in Papua New Guinea, is an apt description of the the thoughts of mass murderers continents and decades away:
"I am not an important man... I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favoured. The exchange is in my favour, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process."
The amok syndrome is an extreme instance of the puzzle of human emotions. Exotic at first glance, upon scrutiny they turn out to be universal; quintessentially irrational, they are tightly interwoven with abstract thought and have a cold logic of their own.
posted by AceRock at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's a fascinating description of 'amok', and it makes a surprising amount of sense — except for "...and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member". Terry Thompson's actions weren't respected by anybody. Was it ever the case in Malay culture that a man who had amoked was 'rehabilitated'?
posted by benito.strauss at 10:18 PM on February 8, 2012

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