By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
A decade ago, a Humane Society of the United States's undercover investigation delved into the bizarre world of Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic) and his roadside zoo, GW Exotics. For years, Joe and his band of untrained workers kept hundreds of big cats and other wild animals in captivity in barren conditions, bred them to provide infant animals for public photo shoots and “play time” sessions, and even shot animals dead when they were of no use to him anymore.
Now, weeks after he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing five tigers and hiring a hit man to kill the operator of a Florida big cat sanctuary, the nation is riveted by a new Netflix docuseries, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” that takes a look up-close at the terror unleashed on animals by Joe Exotic and a notorious cast of characters, including roadside zoo owners Jeff Lowe, Kevin Antle and Tim Stark.
Joe Exotic had a long history of breeding and dumping large numbers of big cats and bears. At his facility, as HSUS's undercover investigator discovered, it was routine to pull newborn cubs, some just hours old, from their mothers to be hand-raised for handling by the public. Customers were allowed to keep handling tiger cubs, even when the infants cried uncontrollably. And as you can see in HSUS's undercover video, tiger cubs were “trained” by being punched in the face, dragged by leashes and hit with sticks. Sick and injured animals were routinely denied veterinary care.
Joe also sent animals to facilities with lengthy records of U.S. Department of Agriculture violations and paid hefty fines for violations. One of the facilities, to which Joe sent large numbers of lions and bears, was owned by Gregg Woody, an Illinois exhibitor who collected animals and then sent them to slaughter.
In 2016, Joe sold his zoo to Jeff Lowe, a big cat exhibitor plagued with controversy. Before acquiring GW Exotics, Lowe was exhibiting a dozen lions and tigers at his flea market, which was closed down by the South Carolina county he was operating in. As the documentary shows, Lowe smuggled tiger cubs into hotel rooms in Las Vegas. The city confiscated a tiger cub, a liliger cub and a young lemur from him. Both cubs were underweight and suffering from several health conditions, including chronic diarrhea and urinary tract infections.
Another character featured on the documentary, who Joe describes as a “mentor,” is Kevin Antle (aka Bhagavan “Doc” Antle). Antle runs Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina and offers public contact with wild animals, including tiger cubs. Countless tigers have been bred at his facility over the years for use in close encounters with paying customers. Myrtle Beach Safari has numerous USDA citations for unsafe caging and handling as well as for failing to provide veterinary care for animals. In 2010, while exhibiting at Jungle Island in Florida, a 500-pound tiger provided by this zoo escaped by jumping over a 14-foot-high fence, coming within 10 feet of a toddler.
Finally, there’s Tim Stark, whose roadside zoo, Wildlife in Need (WIN) in Indiana, is now facing scrutiny from federal and state authorities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked Stark’s exhibitor license and assessed a $340,000 civil penalty, and the Indiana attorney general filed a lawsuit against WIN alleging the facility deceived consumers who made donations while keeping animals in deplorable conditions. The charges against WIN allege more than 120 Animal Welfare Act violations such as beating a leopard to death with a baseball bat, swinging monkeys around by their tails, sick and dying animals going without veterinary care, multiple unexplained animal deaths, including an ocelot who was apparently strangled and unsafe enclosures.
Another big cat exploiter, Bill Meadows of Tiger Safari in Oklahoma, is also tied to this group of tawdry exhibitors. Meadows obtained tigers from Antle and had ties to Joe Exotic as well. One tiger cub obtained from Antle during the HSUS investigation of Tiger Safari was used for photo shoots with the public despite the fact that she arrived with a horrible case of ringworm. And both tiger cubs featured in our investigation died soon after the investigation ended.
All of this may sound outlandish, but the fact is dozens of other roadside zoos like these operate with impunity across the country, with thousands of big cats and other large wild animals held in captivity for public display and interaction. Although they have been raised in cages, these are by no means animals who should petted by anyone. The series, for instance, shows an incident where an employee’s hand was ripped off by a big cat at GW Exotics, and it shows other instances of the animals moving quickly—in their interactions with the humans, including Joe—from frisky and playful to powerful and violent: a natural instinct for any big cat.
In addition to being a public safety hazard and a cost to law enforcement and other public agencies that must respond when incidents occur at these facilities, roadside zoos are also a burden on animal protection organizations and sanctuaries who take in these animals when those who run these facilities don’t want them anymore. The docuseries includes the Big Cat Rescue, run by Carole and Howard Baskin, who do highly effective and tireless work to end abuses by people like Lowe, Stark and Antle. Big Cat Rescue has taken in dozens of abused tigers, lions and other wild animals over the years and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It is also an important partner of ours in the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, a membership organization dedicated to ending the private ownership and exploitation of wild cats, and in pushing for the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in Congress.
This important bill would ban the possession of big cat species like tigers and lions by unqualified individuals, and it would prohibit poorly run animal exhibitions from allowing public contact with big cats, thereby halting the endless breeding of big cats for this harmful practice. The "Tiger King" is a reminder of why it is so crucial to get this bill signed into law this year. Please contact your lawmakers and ask them to cosponsor the Big Cat Public Safety Act, S. 2561 and H.R. 1380. No one should keep wild cats as pets or patronize roadside zoos. Let's work together to end this madness.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.