Tiger King Cohorts Collared

The major players perpetuating the big cat trade in the United States are a small network of eccentric individuals who have been profiting off animal suffering for decades. The hit Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness shined a spotlight on a few of them, including Joe Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic), Jeff Lowe, Tim Stark, and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle.

photo by julissa helmuth
photo by julissa helmuth

For far too long, such exhibitors evaded consequences for their horrendous exploitation of animals. In recent months, however, they have begun to fall like dominoes, as law enforcement has finally cracked down on their unscrupulous activities. 

Maldonado-Passage, of course, sits in prison—convicted for trafficking tigers and other endangered species and killing five tigers at his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (GW Zoo) in Oklahoma. As much of America knows by now, he was also convicted for his bumbling murder-for-hire plot against sanctuary owner Carole Baskin after she persistently called out his animal abuse. 

In Tiger King, the plight of the animals was largely glossed over as the filmmakers trained their lenses instead on the jaw-dropping human drama. For years, the US Department of Agriculture glossed over the abuse as well. Despite years of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) citations, the GW Zoo never got more than a slap on the wrist from the USDA.

Jeff Lowe, the man who acquired the GW Zoo from Maldonado-Passage, previously ran an unlicensed business in which he provided interactions and photo ops with tiger cubs and other exotic animals at his home and aboard his “Jungle Bus” that cruised the Las Vegas Strip. Eventually, the operation was shut down by local authorities and Lowe was arrested. He avoided jail time by entering a plea deal in which he paid $10,000 in restitution, surrendered his animals, and agreed to stay out of trouble for one year—including no “animal related violations.”

With Lowe at the helm, conditions at the GW Zoo did not improve. In June, an inspection report documented shocking conditions and widespread animal misery, and in August, the USDA suspended Lowe’s exhibitor license, which he later surrendered altogether (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2020). In November, the US Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against Lowe for operating a new zoo without a license and for continuing to keep animals in inhumane conditions, alleging violations of the AWA and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The DOJ asked the court to require that Lowe surrender some of his animals, among other penalties. Lowe is also due back in court in Nevada in January for potentially violating the “stay out of trouble” order, and could face six months in jail.

Tim Stark—whose tempestuous and ultimately failed partnership with Lowe was depicted in Tiger King—owned Wildlife in Need, a roadside zoo in Indiana. There, wild animals suffered behind bars for decades, including the juvenile big cats handed over to the public at “Tiger Baby Playtime.” Across years of inspections and investigations, USDA officials allege that Stark threatened government officials, failed to provide veterinary care for gravely ill animals, and committed other horrific acts such as “euthanizing” a leopard cub with a baseball bat.

Despite the severity of the findings, and an initial attempt at revoking Stark’s license in 2015, it took until February 2020 for the USDA to finally do so and fine him and his facility $340,000 for more than 120 AWA citations over a four-year period. More than 200 animals from the property, including numerous big cats, were moved to accredited zoos and sanctuaries. Stark even hid some animals from officials, prompting an arrest warrant to be issued and Stark to go on the run in September. He was apprehended in New York in October.

The final two notorious zoo owners to fall this year are Doc Antle, who owns Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, and Keith Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Virginia. Antle is one of the most prolific cub breeders in the United States; his 37-year-old facility had long been a hub for the big cat trade. Undercover video at Myrtle Beach Safari showed rampant abuse, including dozens of adult tigers shoved into cramped, reconfigured horse stalls. Antle also admitted to regularly euthanizing cross-eyed tigers, a common result of inbreeding to produce tigers with white coloration. Meanwhile, authorities found appalling conditions at Wilson’s zoo during an investigation. Some of the animals had severe skin conditions, and they were given maggot-infested meat and left without water. 

In October, the Virginia attorney general charged Antle and Wilson with wildlife trafficking, conspiracy to traffic wildlife, animal cruelty, and conspiracy to violate the ESA. Wilson was additionally charged with violating the ESA and was already facing 46 counts of animal cruelty stemming from a raid in November 2019 that resulted in authorities confiscating 119 animals. Two of Antle's daughters were also charged with animal cruelty and violating the ESA. 

This spate of enforcement actions over the past year is certainly welcome, but it is also a stark reminder of how long these zoo owners were allowed to continue operating despite clear and abundant evidence detailing the suffering inherent in their business models. While the USDA did revoke Stark’s license and is seeking to revoke Lowe’s, the most significant of the enforcement actions fell to the states. The Indiana and Virginia attorneys general displayed a heroic commitment to saving these animals from further torment, but the appalling conditions at these zoos should have been prevented by proper enforcement of the AWA in the first place. None of these facilities should have been allowed to continue operations after it became clear that they flagrantly and continuously flouted federal law, and the USDA should not have looked the other way for years before taking action. 

Federal deference to the industries regulated under the AWA is an insidious problem that allows egregious brutality to occur unchecked. While we celebrate the enforcement actions taken against these individuals and their commercial operations, it will not be a true victory until a pattern of strong enforcement is established and we can be sure that all abusers will be held accountable in the future. 

We also need stronger federal laws. The Big Cat Public Safety Act (HR 1380/S 2561), a bill to prohibit private ownership of big cats and direct contact between cubs and the public, overwhelmingly passed the House in December. At the time of printing, it had not yet been taken up by the Senate.