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Justice Department Orders Jeffrey Lowe, Tiger King LLC to Surrender Tiger Cubs Amid Reports of Animal Abuse

Tiger King - Jeff Lowe - Animal Abuse

Jeffrey Lowe, current owner of the exotic animal park featured in the infamous “Tiger King” Netflix documentary, has been ordered to relinquish his tigers to the government based on alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act. On January 15, 2021, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Heil III of the Eastern District of Oklahoma issued a preliminary injunction against Mr. Lowe, his wife, Lauren Lowe, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and Tiger King, LLC, ordering the immediate surrender of all big cat cubs under the age of one year and their mothers to the government for proper placement in suitable facilities. The judge also ordered the Lowes to retain a veterinarian and turn over records disclosing all animals acquired and disposed of by the park since June 2020.

Tiger King Documentary Rockets Exotic Animal Owners to Fame

The hit Netflix series “Tiger King”debuted in March 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, attracting millions of viewers from all over the world who were drawn to the spectacle of the dramatic feud between exotic animal collectors like Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, and animal-rights activists like Carole Baskin, big cat conservationist and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. The Netflix documentary largely focuses on the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a 16.4-acre facility in Wynnewood, Oklahoma once owned by Mr. Maldonado-Passage. The animal park boasted a number of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including tigers, lions, ring-tailed lemurs, and a grizzly bear. The stars of the documentary, Mr. Lowe, Mr. Maldonado-Passage, and others soared to fame after its release and fans of the show flocked to the exotic animal park for a chance to pet tiger cubs. Mr. Lowe took over the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park from his former business partner, Mr. Maldonado-Passage, and operated the park with his wife until August 2020.

Lowes Accused of Animal Abuse, Neglect

The injunction issued by the federal court was the result of a civil lawsuit filed by the United States government in November 2020, which accused the Lowes of violating the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act. According to the civil complaint, which names as defendants Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe, Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, LLC, and Tiger King, LLC, the Lowes allegedly jeopardized the health of their animals and exhibited animals at the park without a proper license. As part of the injunction, Judge Heil also ordered the Lowes to cease exhibiting animals without a valid license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The federal court’s decision was based on the finding that the Lowes failed to provide the animals at their park with proper nutrition, safe conditions, and timely and adequate veterinary care, which allegedly resulted in harm to several animals, including two tiger cubs that died within one week of each other.

USDA Inspectors Find Substandard Care at Animal Park

On two separate occasions in June 2020 and July 2020, inspectors from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reported that some of the animals at the Oklahoma animal park were “in poor health and living in substandard conditions,” which is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act. According to the inspectors, the animals had not been provided with enough food and as a result, were underweight and suffering from nutritional deficiencies. The inspectors also stated that they found “foul-smelling, partially burned and decomposing big cat carcasses” on the park grounds, as well as a broken refrigerator truck filled with spoiling meat meant to feed the animals. Furthermore, 34 of the roughly 200 animals at the park were missing and unaccounted for, “with no disposition papers to document where they have gone,” the report stated.

It was based on these findings that the federal court determined that the remaining animals at the park protected by the Endangered Species Act were at risk of harm and that the Lowes’ alleged pattern of providing their animals with substandard care placed the animals in serious danger under the Animal Welfare Act. In August 2020, the USDA suspended Mr. Lowe’s license to exhibit animals to the public, citing violations including failure to safely exhibit animals to the public, failure to provide proper care for animals, and falsification of veterinary records. Mr. Lowe took to Facebook to deny the claims, calling the USDA’s accusations “a litany of falsehoods” and telling his 189,000 Facebook followers that the agency “has folded to the pressures from PETA and continue to make false accusations against me.”

New Animal Park Geared Towards Online Content

The Lowes ultimately closed the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and moved their animals to a property in Thackerville, Oklahoma. They indicated that the new 33-acre facility would be called Tiger King Park and would be used as a film set for television shows. At that time, the Greater Wynnewood park had already been set to be surrendered to Big Cat Rescue and its owner, Carole Baskin. That decision was made by a federal court in June 2020, following a lengthy legal battle that played out on the “Tiger King”documentary, in which Ms. Baskin accused Mr. Maldonado-Passage of trademark infringement for using her organization’s name and logo in the promotion of his own exotic animal park. According to the Lowes, their new animal park in Thackerville will be used as a private set for “Tiger King-related content.” The couple reportedly plans to exhibit their animals online and on television rather than in person at a zoo.

Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act Violations

The two federal laws at issue in the government’s civil case against the Lowes are the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), both of which apply to zoos and other facilities that publicly exhibit wild animals. The AWA, the provisions of which are enforced and administered by the Secretary of Agriculture and APHIS, was enacted to protect the welfare of individual zoo animals. The law establishes standards for the care, handling and transport of zoo animals in the custody of a dealer or exhibitor. The ESA, on the other hand, is a federal law that applies only to animals that have been designated as “endangered” or “threatened.” This law is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and prohibits importing, exporting, taking, selling, possessing, and transporting endangered and threated species, with certain exceptions.

Given that the accusations against the Lowes have to do with both the ESA and the AWA, the case is being investigated both by APHIS and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The case is being handled by trial attorneys from the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s (ENRD) Wildlife and Marine Resources Section, with assistance from attorneys with the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. “The Lowes have showed a shocking disregard for both the health and welfare of their animals, as well as the law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the ENRD in a press release issued by the Justice Department on January 19, 2021.  “We are gratified the court agrees and ordered Mr. Lowe to stop ignoring his obligations under the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act.”

Other Tiger King Stars Accused of Misconduct

Mr. Lowe is not the only person from the “Tiger King”documentary to be accused of misconduct by the federal government. Mr. Maldonado-Passage, who owned the exotic animal park before Mr. Lowe, was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison in January 2020 for attempting to hire a hit man to kill animal-rights activist Carole Baskin, who had criticized him for mistreating his animals. Ms. Baskin is the same animal-rights activist a federal court judge in Oklahoma gave the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park to last June. Mr. Maldonado-Passage was convicted in April 2019 on two counts of murder-for-hire, nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, and eight counts of violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits trafficking in illegal wildlife. Another animal park owner featured in the documentary, Bhagavan Antle, or Doc, owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, was charged last October with similar crimes related to illegal wildlife trafficking, conspiracy to wildlife traffic and animal cruelty.

Prior Criminal Charges Against Jeffrey Lowe

The federal government takes violations of the Animal Welfare Act, the Endangered Species Act and other laws that set the minimum standards for the treatment of wild animals extremely seriously. In 2018, prior to appearing in “Tiger King,” Jeffrey Lowe was charged with illegally exhibiting exotic animals by selling photo ops with tiger cubs in Las Vegas. He was convicted and ordered by the court to surrender the animals and pay $10,000 in restitution for the animals’ care. As part of his plea deal, Lowe received a suspended jail sentence and a “stay out of trouble” order, which included any illegal activity or animal-related violations. While Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe are not facing new criminal charges at this time, the civil action brought by the United States over allegations of animal abuse and neglect has resulted in the Lowes being ordered to surrender their tiger cubs. Furthermore, the USDA’s open enforcement action against the Lowes from back in August 2020 for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act could reportedly result in fines of up to $11,883 per violation per animal.

Animal Advocates Call for Ban on Big Cat Ownership, Cub Petting

Oklahoma is one of only four U.S. states that allow residents to keep big cats without a permit. The term “big cat” is used to refer to tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards, as well as cheetahs and cougars. One of the main attractions at zoos like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is cub petting, which is the reason there are so many tigers in captivity in the U.S. Estimates put the number of captive tigers in the U.S. between 5,000 and 10,000. Comparatively, there are less than 4,000 tigers that exist in the wild. Selling cub-petting experiences to visitors means zoos need a steady supply of tiger cubs that are young enough for the public to interact with safely. To keep up with this constant demand for cubs, zoos often “speed-breed” tigers, removing the cubs from their mothers within days, or sometimes even hours, of being born. According to The Wildcat Sanctuary, a nonprofit rescue sanctuary for wild cats in Minnesota, female tigers in the wild will typically remain with their cubs and care for them until they are two years old.

Cases like the Lowes’ have prompted animal welfare organizations, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and others to call for federal legislation regulating the ownership of big cats in the U.S. Animal welfare advocates are optimistic that the recent enforcement actions against Mr. Lowe and Tiger King, LLC will create a push to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban private ownership of big cats and cub petting at roadside zoos. After failing to pass the U.S. Senate before the 116th legislative session ended last year, the bill was reintroduced in the House by Representatives Mike Quigley and Brian Fitzpatrick on January 11, 2021.

“Animals like tigers, lions, leopards, and pumas simply do not belong in private ownership. Not only does it place the public, including law enforcement and first responders, in grave danger – it also often results in these animals living in miserable conditions,” said Rep. Quigley in a statement. “After passing the House of Representatives last year with strong bipartisan support, I look forward to the Big Cat Public Safety Act advancing quickly and hopefully being signed into law this year.” Although the bill would prohibit public contact with big cats, zoos licensed with the USDA would still be allowed to own the animals but would not be permitted to offer cub petting to visitors.

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