ZANESVILLE, Ohio – The exotic-animal owner who killed himself after turning loose dozens of lions, tigers and other beasts was deep in debt, and a fellow big-cat enthusiast said Thursday that he had taken in so many creatures he was “in over his head.”

A day after sheriff’s deputies with high-powered rifles killed nearly 50 animals set free by Terry Thompson, the sheriff refused to speculate why he did it. Many neighbors, meanwhile, were puzzled as to why Thompson — a man who seemed to like animals more than people — would lash out in a way that would doom his pets.

However, court records show that Thompson and his wife owed at least $68,000 in taxes to the IRS and the county, and two federal tax liens were filed against him last year. He had just gotten out of federal prison last month for possessing unregistered weapons.

Kenny Hetrick, who has six tigers and other animals on his property outside Toledo, said he used to see Thompson at exotic-animal auctions a few times a year. Many of Thompson’s tigers had been donated by people who bought baby animals that they no longer wanted once they started to grow, Hetrick said.

“He really had more there than what he could do,” Hetrick said. “I don’t know what his deal was, but he was in over his head.”

On Tuesday, Thompson, 62, threw open the cages at his animal preserve and then shot himself. His body was found near the empty cages with a bite on the head that appeared to have been inflicted by a big cat, Sheriff Matt Lutz said.

Deputies killed 48 animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions and eight bears — in a hunt that lasted nearly 24 hours. Only a monkey was still missing, and it was probably killed by one of the big cats, Lutz said.

Thompson had run-ins with his neighbors and the law over escaped animals and conditions at his preserve. But whether he acted out of desperation or vengeance in setting the animals loose was unclear.

“I know how much he cared for them, and he would know that they would be killed,” said Judy Hatfield, a family friend.

“I don’t know what happened. I’m sure some horrible thing happened to him yesterday to make him do this or allow him to lose focus for a moment and do it. But I don’t know what it is, and we may never know.”

The sheriff said Thompson’s intentions were not part of the investigation.

Thompson and his wife spent much of their time and money caring for their menagerie, neighbors said. Most of the big cats and bears were declawed and had been bottle-fed by the couple, Hatfield said.

The sheriff said Thompson’s wife awas distraught over the loss of her husband and the animals. “You have to understand these animals were like kids to her,” Lutz said.

The Muskingum County Animal Farm was not open to visitors, but Thompson occasionally took some of the smaller animals to nearby pet shows or nursing homes. He also provided a big cat for a photo shoot with supermodel Heidi Klum and appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” in 2008 as an animal handler for a zoologist guest.