By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has suspended the license of the roadside zoo where self-styled “Tiger King” Joe Exotic bred, held captive and mistreated hundreds of tigers and other wild animals for two decades.
Soon after news of the suspension—which is for a period of 21 days—leaked out, Jeff Lowe, who now owns GW Exotics located in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, announced that he was closing the zoo permanently, although he had, in fact, already lost that facility earlier this year to Joe Exotic’s nemesis, Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, in a lawsuit. We hope that the USDA’s open case against Lowe will next lead to his license being permanently revoked and the animals being confiscated.
This is the latest turn in the heartrending and bizarre saga of this roadside zoo that has been in the news lately because of a Netflix series. The facility’s original owner, Joe Exotic a.k.a. Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was the subject of a Humane Society of the United States undercover investigation in 2012, during which we recorded some of the worst abuse imaginable of big cats. Maldonado-Passage is now serving 22 years in prison for plotting to murder Baskin, and for killing five tigers in his care.
Lowe, another notorious exploiter of big cats, took over GW Exotics from Maldonado-Passage, but news about ongoing animal abuse at the facility continued to filter out. The two most recent USDA inspection reports verified horrific conditions. Inspectors found gravely ill animals suffering without veterinary care, including a tiger cub who was in such dire straits that the USDA halted the inspection and directed that the infant receive immediate attention from a veterinarian. Some animals were emaciated, big cats had disappeared from the park with no record of where they went, a juvenile lion had nearly escaped with members of the public looking on, and only rotten meat was available for the carnivores to eat.
According to media reports, a district court in Indiana recently ordered Lowe to turn over veterinary records of lions that were allegedly not being treated properly at the zoo. And Garvin County Sheriff’s Office deputies and USDA officials began investigating the zoo after receiving a formal report that included photos showing a lion with ears covered in flies and another with the tips of the ears covered in blood.
For years, Lowe has operated with impunity in the exotic animal world—breeding big cats, using cubs for public handling, and trading animals to substandard facilities. He has been cited repeatedly for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act and is currently the subject of a USDA investigation.
Before acquiring GW Exotics, he was run out of Beaufort, South Carolina, when officials passed an emergency ordinance to curtail his display of big cats at a flea market. After arresting Lowe for domestic assault, a Colorado sheriff’s office had to find someone who could quickly take custody of a five-month-old lion Lowe kept in his home while he went to jail. Nevada authorities confiscated a lemur and two thin, sickly big cat cubs when Lowe was furtively conducting photo-ops with the animals in Las Vegas.
No one with such a terrible history of animal abuse should be allowed to own wild animals and it is wrong that our nation still does not have a law that prohibits Lowe, and others like him, from continuing to exploit big cats. In fact, dozens of roadside zoos like GW Exotics now operate around the country with impunity, exhibiting and holding wild animals in outdated conditions for public display and interaction.
That’s why we are pressing Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would end public contact with big cats, thereby halting the endless breeding of these animals for this harmful practice which has created a huge surplus of captive big cats in this country and caused untold misery.
In addition to being a terrible animal welfare problem, roadside zoos are a public safety hazard, a cost to law enforcement and other public agencies that must respond when incidents occur, and a burden on animal protection organizations and sanctuaries that are often called upon to take in these animals when those who run these facilities don’t want them anymore. Please contact your lawmakers and ask them to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act, S. 2561 and H.R. 1380. Let’s get this law on the books so wannabe “Tiger Kings” can no longer profit off the suffering of wild animals.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.