By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
A U.S. District Court has ordered Jeff Lowe, a notorious big cat exhibitor who took over the running of Joe Exotic’s zoo, GW Exotics, to surrender all big cat cubs and their mothers in his possession over allegations of mistreatment.
The preliminary injunction in the Department of Justice case for recurring inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act was based on shocking findings by the U.S Department of Agriculture at Lowe’s facility in Oklahoma.
The shocking allegations against Lowe and his wife included claims of ongoing failure to provide animals with adequate food and veterinary care. Federal officials also alleged that there were “foul-smelling, partially burned and decomposing big cat carcasses,” on the grounds.
The cases of mistreatment included:
- Nala, a lion cub transferred to a sanctuary after a court order in another case, who was underweight and undersized for her age, had difficulty standing and walking, and was found to be severely deficient in vitamin A and thiamine levels.
- Ayeesha, a lion-tiger hybrid cub, who was hospitalized and placed on a feeding tube at two months of age due to severe dehydration and malnutrition. She was consistently underweight, suffered multiple fractures, and was ultimately euthanized at 10 months of age because she had deformities due to the multiple healing fractures and was immobile.
- Dot, a female tiger, who was bred five times between the ages of two and five years old. Her last three litters resulted in stillbirths but the Lowes continued to breed her. Two days after having another litter of stillborn cubs, who required emergency surgery, Dot died due to complications from the surgery.
- Gizzy, an emaciated grizzly bear the Lowes left behind when they moved to a new property. Upon her arrival to a sanctuary in Colorado, Gizzy was described as “stunted and underweight” and exhibited “behavior of ravenous eating.”
- Mama, a tiger, who was allowed to labor for 48 hours before a veterinarian was consulted. During this period, the Lowes gave Mama three doses of oxytocin, which increases the risk of uterine rupture. Mama’s uterus did in fact rupture, causing sepsis, and she had to be euthanized.
- Lizzie, an 11-year-old tiger, who suffered from a subluxated disc and was lame in one of her hind legs. Lizzie did not receive vet care until more than a month after the injury, by which time she was unable to use her back legs and dragged them as she walked, causing wounds that even penetrated to the bone in one place. Lizzie was euthanized.
- Promise, a 12-year-old tiger, whose condition had apparently been declining for about a month before the Lowes sought treatment for him. By that time, he had been unable to walk for two weeks and had large pressure sores on both hips and one knee. Promise was euthanized.
As horrifying as these cases are, they are not surprising in light of Lowe’s overall history. Before acquiring GW Exotics, he was exhibiting a dozen lions and tigers at his flea market, which was closed down by the South Carolina county where it was located. Lowe smuggled tiger cubs into hotel rooms in Las Vegas and 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.
In Friday’s preliminary injunction, the judge—in addition to ordering the Lowes to surrender all big cat cubs a year old and younger, as well as the cubs' mothers, pending the final disposition of the case, ordered them to retain a veterinarian and barred them from exhibiting the animals without a USDA license. The court also ordered them to provide records of all animals they had bought or disposed of since June 2020.
We celebrate this decision, but we need to do more to ensure that people like Jeff Lowe and Joe Exotic cannot profit off the suffering of big cats. Congress is now considering a bill that would stop exhibitors from using big cats for public contact. The Big Cat Public Safety Act, which passed the U.S. House in the last Congress, was reintroduced this month by Reps. Michael Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn, the original sponsors of the bill.
We will be working with all of our might to ensure this bill becomes law. Joe Exotic and Jeff Lowe are poster boys for why we need this law, but they have hardly been the only operators keeping some of the most magnificent wild animals on earth in abject misery and confinement. Please urge your lawmakers to cosponsor this bill, for the safety of the animals and the American people.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.