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Oklahoma zookeeper convicted on murder for hire plot against Big Cat Rescue founder

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage on two counts of hiring someone to murder Tampa Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin, capping a decade-long feud between the two over the exploitation of captive big cats.

But Baskin, who was not harmed in the plot, said the more consequential outcome was the jury's conviction of Maldonado-Passage on 17 counts related to wildlife trafficking for illegally selling tigers across state lines between 2016 and 2018 and violating the Endangered Species Act when he shot five tigers in 2017 to make room for other big cats to be boarded at his zoo for a fee.

"I hope this raises awareness about the fact there is all this illegal trafficking going on and the people involved in that will be held accountable," Baskin said. "The cub petting and the buying and selling across state lines is killing the tiger in the wild. It's hard for people to make that connection."
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Maldonado-Passage will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending sentencing, which will take place in about 90 days, according to the Department of Justice. He is facing up to 10 years in prison for each murder for hire charge and three to five years on each of the animal related charges.

Beginning in July 2016, Maldonado-Passage repeatedly sought someone to murder Baskin in exchange for money, which led to his meeting with an undercover FBI agent on December 2017, according to a Department of Justice news release.

Prosecutors said Maldonado-Passage gave a man $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to South Carolina and then to Florida to murder Baskin, with a promise to pay thousands more after the deed, according to the indictment.

Baskin opened her Big Cat Rescue in 1992 to care for animals rescued from various roadside zoos and other hellish conditions. She began speaking out against zoos across the country like Maldonado-Passage's and the lucrative pay-for-play business of breeding tigers and charging clients to pet and swim with cubs. Baskin said Maldonado-Passage retaliated by naming his traveling petting zoo "Big Cat Rescue Entertainment."

In 2011, Big Cat Rescue sued Maldonado-Passage, and in 2013, it won a judgment worth more than $1 million, Baskin said.

In the years following their legal battle, Maldonado-Passage also made a number of threats against Baskin online, the indictment said. Baskin said Maldonado-Passage produced a video of him shooting a blow-up doll in the head that was dressed as Baskin. He made another image of hanging Baskin in effigy.

In addition to finding Maldonado-Passage guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act by shooting five tigers, the jury found he broke federal law by stating on veterinary forms that tigers, lions, and a baby lemur were being donated or transported for exhibition, when he was actually illegally selling them in interstate commerce.

Maldonado-Passage also had another local connection. In 2017 Dade City's Wild Things shipped 19 tigers to Maldonado-Passage's Oklahoma zoo to avoid a court-ordered inspection by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A female tiger gave birth on the journey and all three cubs died.

The incident was referenced during the jury trial, Baskin said, but Dade City Wild Things was not a part of the federal charges.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Judge bans Dade City's Wild Things from owning tigers
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Dade City's Wild Things owner tests limits of federal court in PETA lawsuit

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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