USDA Suspends Exhibition Permit for Jeff Lowe, as Joe Exotic’s Former Business Partner Announces He’s Closing the Zoo
Oklahoma City — The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act through an on-site inspection program, has suspended the exhibition license of Jeff Lowe, the operator of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Garvin County. Lowe took over the facility from Joseph Maldonado, better known as “Joe Exotic,” who was sent to prison after federal prosecutors secure a conviction for a series of crimes, including killing tigers in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That operation, first run by Maldonado and now by Lowe, is one of the largest roadside zoos in the nation, with perhaps 100 tigers and a variety of other animals used for public exhibition, including petting of tiger and lion cubs. Lowe announced yesterday he is closing the zoo to the public and will use the setting for film production purposes.
“Oklahoma is one a handful of states that do not forbid private ownership of dangerous exotics as pets. It’s partly because of the gap in the laws that Joe Maldonado created an unnecessarily dangerous circumstance by amassing a huge number of tigers at a shoddy, roadside zoo,” said Drew Edmondson, former Oklahoma Attorney General and co-chairman of the National Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action and the Animal Wellness Foundation. “Now we see that Maldanado’s former business partner and current roadside zoo operator has been suspended by USDA for animal-care violations. This whole situation is a mess, and state lawmakers and regulators should act to protect the community and to stop this obvious mistreatment of these animals, whether or not the animals are exhibited for commercial purposes.”
Oklahoma, South Carolina, Nevada, Wisconsin, and North Carolina are the handful of states without any limits on private ownership of dangerous exotic animals.
The U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on the Big Cat Public Safety Act in September, and that measure would ban interstate transport of big cats for use as pets and ban commercial cub petting operations. That bill, which the House Natural Resources Committee approved in the summer, would address the small number of operations throughout the country, like the Wynnewood facility, that have long bred big cats for cub petting and then typically discard the animals when they become too big to handle. The bill, H.R. 1380, has 230 bipartisan cosponsors — a majority of the House. A Senate companion bill, S. 2561, has 20 cosponsors.
The BCPSA is positioned for action now that the major opponent of the bill, the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), has withdrawn its opposition. The bill is supported by the highly respected Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the National Sheriffs Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Animal Wellness Action, Big Cat Rescue, SPCA International, and a raft of other organizations.
“The idea of amassing this many tigers in a roadside zoo, for cub petting and other purposes, is madness,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “If a tornado or other disaster were to strike this facility, Garvin County would have chaos on its hands. These animals do not belong in backyards, basements, and roadside zoos.”
Animal Wellness Action and Animal Wellness Foundation are calling on state lawmakers to get serious about taking up a measure to forbid the trade in powerful exotic animals for use as pets and as commercial operations where paying customers can physically handle the juveniles. Conscripted into these settings, the cubs are taken from their mothers at birth, deprived of the proper nutrition found only in mothers’ milk, denied sleep while being handled for hours on end, and physically punished for exhibiting their natural behaviors.