Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ is a wake-up call for ending private possession of big cats

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

By on March 27, 2020 with 47 Comments

A decade ago, our 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 our 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 our 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 be 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.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

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Public Policy (Legal/Legislative), Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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47 Comments

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  1. Simone Young says:

    This makes me so sad that these animals were beaten and killed and blatantly disrespected. Too bad he only got 22 years. A more fitting punishment would have been to throw him into a tiger pit.

  2. Debbie Clark says:

    Thank you for sharing this with the world. My husband and I visited Big Cat Rescue about four years ago. I fell in love with the cats and the sanctuary that was now their home. I was devastated to learn about the dark trade of breeding, pay for play, canned hunts and these majestic creatures being sold for their body parts.

    • Rosha Kasravi says:

      Agree, its hard to even read…. critters caught or forced to breed … it’ s just so upsetting that any man or woman could cause so much injusice to
      Innocence among us.

      I would say throw him into the tiger pitt
      But thrse would be unfair to tigers.

  3. Debbi Clark says:

    Thank you for sharing this with the world. My husband and I visited Big Cat Rescue about four years ago. I fell in love with the cats and the sanctuary that was now their home. I was devastated to learn about the dark trade of breeding, pay for play, canned hunts and these majestic creatures being sold for their body parts.

  4. Lisa Billings says:

    terrible. I was so offended when I saw this trailer on Netflix. Horrible

  5. Katherine Trott says:

    It is a sad thing that anyone considers these big cats as something to breed and make money off of. Too bad these people can’t be required to endure what they’re putting these feeling beings through for their own monetary gains. Fortunately, karma’s a bitch!

  6. Robin Ralrick says:

    Thank you for this honest account of the real world of cub petting and animal abuse at these horrid places. These villains need to be held accountable for their inhumane treatment of the animals and taking advantage of people through lies and deceit. It is time for this is stop and our justice system to step forward and make a difference.

  7. Cynthia says:

    The Big Cat Public Safety Act will deplete the genetics of tigers further. Like it or not these tigers are all we have left. When they go to sanctuary’s they get genetically culled ( spayed & nuetered) there genetic line ends! all this does is kill more tigers not save them. They were taken from nature and we need them to give back to nature they are a all we have left!

    • Annamarie says:

      Please to some research on the importance of keeping an impeccable global genetic database when trying to repopulate a threatened species. Backyard breeding is not — and never will be — the answer. Backyard hacks typically cross tiger species (e.g. Sumatran x Amur) to avoid endangered species laws (resulting in animals that could never be used for reintroduction), breed whites (NOT an “endangered” separate species, and many individuals are fraught with health issues), or breed ridiculous hybrids like ligers (crossing cats that aren’t even from the same continent, for no good reason). Please look into this and fight on the side of the animals themselves.

    • L says:

      Keeping them in a zoo isn’t giving them back to nature either. We need to do all we can to protect Big Cats in the wild, and keeping Big Cats captive in America doesn’t help with that.

    • L.M. Peacock says:

      Cynthia,

      Zoos and captive breeders provide an “illusion” to the public that they are saving wildlife. Sadly – in reality – mostly it’s all about the money. Animals in captivity will never breed in the wild. The focus really must be on preserving and protecting wild spaces to allow wildlife to populate in their true natural environment.

      Some zoos do help “educate” the public about the dangers to wildlife and how close we are to losing some of them forever to extinction, and that is a positive action. But overall captive breeding is not going to help with wild populations – at least not for apex predators such as Tigers.

      The harsher reality is that most captive bred wildlife is exploited to make money, and are not kept in good health or in suitable conditions since their owners are “profit driven”. Many suffer horrible health issues due to being kept in such unnatural environments. Forcing a Tiger – whose natural wild territory would be around 30 square miles or more – to live in cages or small enclosures is inhumane. Pause for a moment and think about how your life would feel if you were confined to one room forever.

      Some points to think about in regards to wildlife in captivity:
      – the animal is deprived of its natural habitat.
      – the animal may not have enough room, which is very often the case.
      – the animal is deprived of its natural social structure and companionship, and often is not allowed to raise its young…..instead those are often put on display or in horrible places they are used for “cub petting”.
      – the animal is forced into close proximity with other species or human beings which is unnatural and can create behavioral issues as they become bored, depressed, etc. We’ve all seen this at zoos with animals pacing back and forth in their enclosures, especially those that normally would have huge territories in nature.

      There is more to treating animals than keeping them physically healthy, it’s possible for zoos or captive facilities to keep animals in perfect physical shape, but in conditions that cause the animals to display serious behavioral problems. Elephants immediately come to mind in how they rock back and forth in their enclosures – a behavior not seen in wild elephants.

    • Liesbeth says:

      First of all, they were not “taken from nature”. They were bred in captivity. Besides most of these captive-bred tigers have mixed genetics, they’re a mix of tiger species – thus they have *no* “conservation value” whatsoever.
      Second, no they are not “all we have left”. There are still thousands of tigers with pure genetics living in the wild. THOSE are the ones who need to be protected and who need our attention the most. Continually breeding inbred and genetically comprised tigers as well as keeping them in captivity in perpetuity does absolutely NOTHING to solve poaching, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict etc. If anything it does the opposite: captive-bred tigers often are killed for their body parts and bones which fuels and stimulates demand, which in turn leads to MORE poaching of wild tigers.

    • ROBIN BICE says:

      I read an article years ago that said most of these roadside ‘zoo’ animals are not pure bred, they are crosses of various sub types of tigers, and also have genetic problems because of inbreeding. They need to be removed form these hell holes, spayed and given refuge for the rest of their lives. The cycle of ‘cute baby tiger photos’ needs to be broken

  8. Teresa briggs says:

    Where can I sign a petition to end this horrific cruelty.

    • L.M. Peacock says:

      If you are in the US, you can find your current US House representative at this link. Then you can call their office, email them, etc……even search for their FaceBook and Twitter accounts once you know their name – and pressure them via social media.
      https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

      As mentioned above – HSUS is asking US citizens to contact their representative and ask them to push this legislation forward. HR 1380 was introduced in the House in February 2019. It has over 220 co-sponsors in the House. We just need to keep reaching out to our representatives to keep their focus on this Bill. It has to get passed in the US House before it will move forward to the US Senate.

      This US government link is where you can see all the information and actions on HR 1380. Currently the last action taken was in September 2019.
      https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1380

  9. Bonnie Bourque says:

    Quit allowing these beautiful cats to continue to be exploited!! The people that run these road side Zoos are just out to make a quick buck from the innocent animals.

  10. Gerald Hubert says:

    Mistreatment, neglect, and abuse of animals and people go hand and hand.

  11. Amy Boyd says:

    Baskin is no better than the rest of them. She runs an unpaid sweatshop, has sold cubs, charges outlandish entrance fees, and utilizes small cages. Shut them all down!!!

    • Blog Editor says:

      Big Cat Rescue (BCR) is a non-profit with a 5-star rating from Charity Navigator and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an organization that accredits sanctuaries based on stringent standards and ethical practices consistent with federal law (Captive Wildlife Safety Act) that defines a legitimate wildlife sanctuary as a facility that doesn’t breed, buy, sell, offer public contact or do off-site exhibition. BCR has been at the forefront of efforts to promote professional standards in the field of animal exhibition, including stopping public contact with big cats, and is very transparent about how the sanctuary started. Like a number of sanctuary founders, Carole started out in the 1990s as an exotic pet owner who saw the horrors involved in the pet trade and eventually transformed into one of the best big cat sanctuaries in the country. You can learn more about it here https://bigcatrescue.org/about/our-evolution/.

  12. Crystal Morgan says:

    I 100% support the words written by you in regards to the majority of the big cat exploiters and abusers however, Carole Baskin is no different than them and you know it. To call her work highly effective is a blatant lie. She is an animal abuser and to align yourself with her is a disrespect to the work you do. You should be fighting her exploits and the disgusting way she treats her animals, not aligning with herself with her. I am appalled.

    • Blog Editor says:

      Big Cat Rescue (BCR) is a non-profit with a 5-star rating from Charity Navigator and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an organization that accredits sanctuaries based on stringent standards and ethical practices consistent with federal law (Captive Wildlife Safety Act) that defines a legitimate wildlife sanctuary as a facility that doesn’t breed, buy, sell, offer public contact or do off-site exhibition. BCR has been at the forefront of efforts to promote professional standards in the field of animal exhibition, including stopping public contact with big cats, and is very transparent about how the sanctuary started. Like a number of sanctuary founders, Carole started out in the 1990s as an exotic pet owner who saw the horrors involved in the pet trade and eventually transformed into one of the best big cat sanctuaries in the country. You can learn more about it here https://bigcatrescue.org/about/our-evolution/.

  13. Yvonne says:

    Please send your message to politicians to ban private wildlife ownership:
    https://www.bornfreeusa.org/take-action/big-cat-act-2019/

  14. Agnieszka says:

    stupid parents

  15. Doug says:

    How is big cat rescue any different? They use untrained volunteers. It seems you only want to rid the world of people having big cats that you dont want to have them.

    • Shelby says:

      The only reason big cat rescue has animals is because of the pet trade. These aren’t pets. Their volunteers helps with clean up or possibly meal prep but don’t directly interact with the cats. They have trained professionals and vets. It’s not the same at all. How did you read this whole article and still come on with this statement? That’s like getting upset because the ASPCA has volunteers.

    • Tina says:

      They’re called “rescues” for a reason.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thank you Doug!! Exactly. Carole Baskin is no better than Joe or Doc. Her facilities are inadequate and most of her cats have been purchased for her “sanctuary”. BCR Watch has tons of facts and data available and I question why HSUS would align with her. Very vary sad and misleading!

      • Blog Editor says:

        Big Cat Rescue (BCR) is a non-profit with a 5-star rating from Charity Navigator and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an organization that accredits sanctuaries based on stringent standards and ethical practices consistent with federal law (Captive Wildlife Safety Act) that defines a legitimate wildlife sanctuary as a facility that doesn’t breed, buy, sell, offer public contact or do off-site exhibition. BCR has been at the forefront of efforts to promote professional standards in the field of animal exhibition, including stopping public contact with big cats, and is very transparent about how the sanctuary started. Like a number of sanctuary founders, Carole started out in the 1990s as an exotic pet owner who saw the horrors involved in the pet trade and eventually transformed into one of the best big cat sanctuaries in the country. You can learn more about it here https://bigcatrescue.org/about/our-evolution/.

  16. Aisha malik says:

    Where do I sign petition to end horrific treatment of big cats?

    • L.M. Peacock says:

      If you are in the US, you can find your current House representative at this link. Then you can call their office, email them, etc. Even search for their FaceBook and Twitter accounts once you know their name – and pressure them via social media.
      https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

      As mentioned above – HSUS is asking US citizens to contact their representative and ask them to push this legislation forward. HR 1380 was introduced in the House in February 2019. It has over 220 co-sponsors in the House. We just need to keep reaching out to our representatives to keep their focus on this Bill. It has to get passed in the House before it will be moved forward to the US Senate.

      This US government link is where you can see all the information and actions on HR 1380. Currently the last action taken was in September 2019.
      https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1380

  17. S sacre says:

    Shocking….. Shame on them for such disgusting cruelty….. May they get cruelty that they deserve as these animals got from them what they DID NOT deserve.!!

  18. Kathy Cooper says:

    STOP!!!

  19. Hazel says:

    What are you talking about? Big Cat Rescue will provide the safety they deserve. Produce evidence if you see any foul play….but in the meantime, respect the work that they do

  20. Hazel says:

    @Doug What are you talking about? Big Cat Rescue will provide the safety they deserve. Produce evidence if you see any foul play….but in the meantime, respect the work that they do

  21. Lorraine says:

    Big cats are wild animals an should live in the wild

  22. Susan says:

    Only 4000 tigers in the wild & over 10,000 in captivity!!! This is so wrong!! Let them go!!!

  23. M says:

    Carole Gaskin and Bug Cat Rescue is just as culpable as the rest of them. The only difference between her and them, is that she doesn’t pay her untrained, uneducated staff.

  24. Judy gmitro says:

    Please someone go in there and remove these animals from this nut. Take the show off. These animals deserve better and respect. He should get his ass beaten or anyone else there that are cruel too these animals. What is wrong with the humane race. Between humans and animals it always seems it’s the humans that are in the wrong. My heart goes out to each and every animal there.

  25. LO says:

    Using and abusing innocent animals is illegal and disgusting – the only ‘saving’ going on here is personal monetary gain by people with huge egos and no regard for the animals well-being.
    The lack of moral and ethical standards is very disturbing. Why aren’t the laws being enforced?

  26. Ken Robinson says:

    Cruel heartless scumbags,need locking up for a long time!!!

  27. Catherine says:

    Disgusting. Close this place down, relocate animals and ensure proper care. Charge the people responsible. Laws must be stronger to protect the innocents!

  28. Jen says:

    It’s too bad that all the cages at Big Cat Rescue also look so awful – sad life for those animals. I looked at their finances as shown publicly because they’re a charity and it seems a shame that some of the millions they fundraise aren’t used to improve the living conditions of the cats they rescue.

  29. Kim Terry says:

    The one good to come of this Netflix series is the awareness this raises of the evil nature of these roadside zoos. How come there isn’t any TRUE big sanctuary like the safaries in South Africa where they can roam freely and be in protected land? Surely there’s enough land in the US that someone can make this happen! Where are all the rich animal loving stars and their millions?!

  30. Jo Sedbrook says:

    This makes me sick! I didn’t watch it all and when the audio continued I had to scroll back to shut it off. These POS do NOT deserve any kind of fame! And these innocent animals do NOT deserve this cruel treatment. Yet they are the ones who are killed because of something they did, all because of humans. Put a stop to it today.

  31. mary f. trombetta says:

    “Animals Make Us Human”
    by Temple Grandin

  32. Catherine Zimmer says:

    As a supporter of Big Cat Rescue, which is sorely needed as respite for these poor Animals that come from roadside zoos and unscrupulous people like joe exotic, I encourage all to:

    Unsubscribe from Netflix, I did.
    Write their congressional representative and ask them to ban possession of wild cats for the safety of both the Animals and humans.

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