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  1. Life & Culture

Tiger King Joe Exotic’s former park now called ‘zoo of horrors’

‘The biggest victims in all of the Tiger King drama are the animals.’

The zoo once run by Tiger King Joe Exotic is now a “zoo of horrors” because of animal abuse and neglect, a complaint filed with Oklahoma authorities alleges.

Photographs and videos obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting show neglect at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Oklahoma.

In one video, blood-sucking black flies attack a lioness with a partly missing ear that may have been wounded by other cats.

The revelations come at the same time the Oklahoma Tax Commission is moving to shut down the zoo, demanding $54,000 in back taxes for 2016. That doesn’t include the taxes owed since.

Exotic (whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage) came crashing into America’s psyche in March in Netflix’s wildly popular Tiger King documentary, which showed the war between him and Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida.

He is now serving 22 years in federal prison in a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin as well as 17 counts of animal abuse, which included shooting five tigers.

Since Tiger King aired, Baskin said she had become “the most hated woman on the Internet” because of the show’s suggestions she had something to do with the 1997 disappearance of her then-husband, Don Lewis.

In 2011, she won a $1 million judgment against Exotic in a trademark infringement lawsuit.

To keep Baskin from seizing his zoo, he gave it to his mother and his new business partner, Jeff Lowe.

That ploy failed, and a judge last week gave Baskin control.

Related: Tampa's Big Cat Rescue granted ownership of Joe Exotic's former zoo

Lowe, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges in 2008, has 120 days to vacate the zoo and remove all the animals.

“The biggest victims in all of the Tiger King drama are the animals,” animal rescuer Michele Johnson wrote in her complaint. “They’re waking up to ‘Are we going to be fed today?’”

In one recent stretch, the big cats were fed only once in five days, which reflects horrible neglect, she wrote.

While touring the zoo, the stench overwhelmed her, she wrote. “It smelled like death.”

The tigers had flies covering them, and there was raw chicken left exposed, resulting in flies covering the meat, and the cats “refusing to consume it,” the complaint alleges.

Another video shows pot belly pigs grazing in cages, trying to eat amidst scattered tires, wood, lumber and plastic, which can be dangerous for pigs, the complaint alleges.

An adjacent cage holds a bobcat, which appears too small under the Animal Welfare Act, the complaint alleges.

Other videos show a grizzly bear, missing a huge swath of fur, dashing around her cage, having nothing for enrichment other than an old tire tossed into her cage.

The bear, urinating and having loose stools, appears to be in “horrific condition,” the complaint alleges. “She appears to have extreme distress, with her head flinging, and continually pacing. … She is also very emaciated.”

On Instagram, the zoo published a photo of the same bear eating Fruit Loops, next to some fruit, with the caption: “The animals eat better than we do!”

Tim Stark, who owns the bear, questioned why his grizzly bear was being fed such “s--- for food. Absolutely no nutritional value. Basically she has been on a sugar high, which apparently seems due to their lack of knowledge of caring for any animal.”

In a separate Instagram photo, a black bear is being fed what appear to be eclairs.

Stark said these carnivores need meat to stay healthy.

Inside the reptile house, black mold and garbage could be seen, the complaint alleges.

In addition to a python, the house holds a tropical rainforest kinkajou and an African primate known as a galago or bush baby, according to the complaint.

Related: Carole and Howard Baskin say 'Tiger King' makers betrayed their trust

All these animals, along with others in the reptile house, suffer from improper sanitation, failure to clean up animal waste and “molded rotten food” left in dishes, the complaint alleges.

According to the complaint, a Hyacinth macaw parrot there “was brutally killed after a wolf breached its enclosure, and attempted to pull the parrot through the screen grating that the parrot loved to cling too. ... The parrot bled to death and was not discovered until later in the day by staff members.”

Rare exotic squirrels at the zoo, sharing an enclosure with pigeons, were seen consuming chunks of bird feces, and large open sores could be seen on their chests, the complaint alleges.

Videos show huge holes in the zoo’s cages, enabling animals to attack each other or to possibly injure themselves by getting stuck in the holes.

Lowe has referred to the zoo’s conditions as “complete hell,” telling Entertainment Tonight that he has no plans to fix anything before turning it over to Baskin. “She can have these 16 acres of haunted memories.”

His attorney could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In an online statement, Lowe said Baskin planned to take cages from Exotic’s old zoo, “which thankfully means that the animals that she has will finally have the proper amount of space to move around.”

Baskin told MCIR that she hasn’t been speaking about what’s happening at the zoo “because there is still pending litigation.”

She told the Tampa Bay Times that if Lowe is unable to move the animals, and there is a need “to place the animals in new homes, Big Cat Rescue and the animal welfare organizations that have previously successfully placed big cats from large facilities in new homes stand ready to assist.”

Stark, who runs the Wildlife in Need animal rescue in Indiana, has been fighting to get back 47 animals that he said Lowe was holding for him, but has refused to give back.

Stark, who is battling the USDA over accusations he violated the Animal Welfare Act, said that at least 13 of those animals have yet to be accounted for and that number doesn’t include the animals’ offspring.

Lowe, who has already signed up for a new reality TV show, said in his online statement: “Please don’t worry about our animals. I have been building the greatest Tiger Park the world has ever seen.”

This new park was originally scheduled to open in spring 2019, next to the world’s largest casino, WinStar World Casino and Resort, only to be followed by delays. Now Lowe is promising the park will open in September.

Stark questioned why “anyone in the animal world as a breeder, rescuer or even as a general caregiver should question why it is that the USDA has decided to allow this convicted felon, with a past of animal abuse history, to get a free pass while others are persecuted for less crimes perpetrated against animals.”

R. Andre Bell, a spokesman for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency is aware of such complaints against the zoo.

“We take animal neglect and abuse very seriously,” he said, “and plan to look further into this.”

Baskin told MCIR that she hopes that this “public awareness of abuse and neglect will force USDA to take some action. I don’t believe they ever took any meaningful action based on the 2006 complaints of injured animals, including a lioness having her front leg ripped off, nor does it seem that USDA ever took any action for 23 tiger cubs dying between April 2009 and May 2010 at the GW Zoo.

“To this day, when asked, they merely say that it is ‘under investigation,’” she said. “At what point do they finally revoke the license and seize and disperse the animals to accredited sanctuaries?”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

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