"Shoot to kill."
That was the order given to law-enforcement officers hunting for dozens of exotic animals that escaped Tuesday from a private animal park near Columbus, Ohio. And kill they did.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 48 animals were shot including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzlies, a baboon and three mountain lions, the Associated Press reported.
Three leopards, two monkeys and a grizzly bear were captured and taken to a zoo. A monkey – which may be carrying a virus – is still loose.
The incident has left animal-rights activists seething at the lethal treatment of creatures that had done no harm.
"What happened in Ohio this week is appalling," wrote Will Travers, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, in a CNN editorial. "All those wandering animals, confused by their sudden and unfathomable 'freedom,' were shot dead as though they were alien invaders in a safe bucolic land."
Online comments were more blunt: "I hope they find and punish these animal murderers," a reader using the handle "me" wrote at CNN.com.
The exotic animals – 56 in all – ran free after their 62-year-old owner, Terry Thompson, unlocked their cages and then apparently killed himself.
The incident underscores Ohio's deplorable record in dealing with wild animals, according to a Humane Society report. Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma were also singled out for having few restrictions on keeping dangerous non-native wild animals as pets.
"The average pet owner cannot provide the sophisticated care exotic animals need in captivity," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in the 2009 report .
Law officers buried 48 animal carcasses on the Thompson property, Business Week reports.
Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, explained to reporters why the animals were shot instead of sedated. The feral escapees were too dangerous, he said, and a tragedy for the animal world "could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world."
Attempts to tranquilize some animals failed, county sheriff Matt Lutz told the Wall Street Journal. When a veterinarian tried to tranquilize a 300-pound tiger, "this thing just went crazy. It started to run into the wooded area and our officers took it down."
What's your reaction to the animal killings? Can you think of a better way authorities could have handled dangerous animals on the loose?