The bizarre saga of a former Oklahoma roadside zoo owner, whose menagerie of hundreds of dangerous exotic animals was exposed in a 2011 HSUS undercover investigation, reached a dramatic conclusion yesterday when a federal jury found him guilty on charges that included killing five tigers and hiring a hit man to kill the operator of a Florida big cat sanctuary who is a leader in the fight to end private ownership of big cats nationwide.
Our investigation of the roadside zoo owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic and Joe Schreibvogel) found dangerous exotics, including tigers, lions, bears, chimpanzees and other primates caged in barren conditions, bred to provide infant animals for public photo shoots and “play time” sessions, and often cared for by workers with little to no experience.
It was routine to pull newborn cubs, some just hours old, from their mothers to be hand-raised so they could be readied for handling by the public – an objectionable practice that is harmful to the cubs, devastating to the mother, and broadly condemned by wildlife experts. Customers were allowed to keep handling tiger cubs, even when the infants cried uncontrollably. 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 Exotic has a long history of breeding and dumping large numbers of big cats and bears. He has sent tigers to facilities that have lengthy records of USDA violations and have paid hefty fines for violations. Joe has also sent large numbers of lions and bears to Gregg Woody, an Illinois exhibitor who has collected lions and bears and then sent these animals to slaughter. In 2016, he sold his zoo to Jeff Lowe, although he remained in charge of day to day operations. Lowe is also a big cat exhibitor plagued with controversy, and the sale ensured that the animals would continue to suffer.
The HSUS works to expose the cruelty of roadside zoos because we know that allowing unqualified persons to possess dangerous wild animals is a formula for disaster. In 2015, we conducted an investigation at the Tiger Safari in Oklahoma that led to the USDA citing the facility for numerous violations, including failing to provide the animals with a suitable diet and water. The owner of that zoo, we learned yesterday, was assessed a $15,000 civil penalty by the USDA.
Such reckless disregard for wildlife is also why we are also supporting the Big Cat Public Safety Act in Congress. The bill would ban the possession of big cat species like tigers and lions by individuals and poorly run animal exhibitions that allow public contact with big cats.
Joe Exotic has not yet been sentenced, but he could face 20 years in prison. It is a fitting end to a life of crime that showed no regard both for human life and for the lives of numerous big cats and other animals who, because of him, will never know what it is like to live free.
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