KEENESBURG, Colo. - The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo. is now home to four African lions and four black bears that once belonged to Terry Thompson, an Ohio man notorious for letting loose his collection of 56 exotic animals before killing himself last October.
The tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio made headlines worldwide as 48 of the abandoned animals -- including tigers, lions and bears -- were shot by law enforcement officials in order to protect the surrounding community.
The lions and bears, which arrived Wednesday at the sanctuary, were not among the animals released by Thompson. He had previously given them to a neighbor to keep on her property, said sanctuary spokeswoman Katie Vandegrift.
But it was what Vandegrift calls the "Zanesville tragedy," that will likely result in the sanctuary rescuing more big cats and other carnivores from cramped, unhealthy conditions in Ohio and bringing them to the sprawling, 720-acre refuge.
Ohio was notorious for having some of the most lax exotic animal ownership regulations in the United States, Vandegrift said. The sanctuary had rescued more than 40 animals from Ohio since 1980.
"That was just the tip of the iceberg," said Pat Craig, executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary. "There are so many that once these regulations go into effect, we won't be able to take them all, but we'll do the best we can."
After the chaotic incident in Zanesville, Ohio passed a law banning the purchase of dangerous animals. It also requires current owners of exotic animals to register with the state by Nov. 5. A complete ban on the acquisition, sale and breeding of restricted animals, including large cats, will take effect in 2014, the sanctuary said.
"As unfortunate as that tragedy was last year…the deaths of those animals are actually going to save thousands of animals in the future, including the ones we just saved, because that tragedy forced Ohio to adopt stricter laws," Vandergrift said.
"Now, not just anyone, like Terry Thompson, can own a plethora of exotic animals and then whenever they feel like it they can release them or do whatever they want to do with them, which obviously put puts the public in jeopardy," she said.
The Ohio woman who owned the eight bears and lions was housing them in "very small and unsafe cages made out of wood and regular fencing," Vandegrift said.
Realizing she couldn't meet the tough new standards for animal enclosures, the woman cooperated with Ohio authorities to find them a new home in Colorado.
The newly arrived lions and bears "were suffering, they're extremely malnourished," Vandegrift said. But they're acclimating well and will now "live on a large acreage habitat and roam freely for the rest of their lives."