Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic
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A federal judge has ordered that Greater Wynnewood Zoo (G.W. Zoo)—a notorious roadside attraction in Oklahoma made famous by the Netflix series Tiger King—be relinquished to Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Court orders 'Tiger King' zoo to be surrendered, but its animals remain in limbo

The fraudulently held zoo must be transferred to Carole Baskin's Big Cat Rescue within 120 days. It's unclear what will happen to the 200 animals on the property.

A federal judge has ordered that Joe Exotic’s former Greater Wynnewood Zoo (G.W. Zoo)—a notorious roadside attraction in Oklahoma made famous by the Netflix series Tiger King—be relinquished to Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue to settle a legal dispute between the animal parks.

Jeff Lowe, the current owner of G.W. Zoo, must vacate the 54-acre property within 120 days, under the order by Judge Scott L. Palk, United States District Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma. But the judgment doesn’t apply to the roughly 200 animals in the facility, more than half of them tigers and other big cats. Under state and federal law, the animals are considered Lowe’s property and don’t convey.

G.W. Zoo is not a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits highly regarded zoos, aquariums, and animal parks in North America.

Lowe has almost 200,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok. Since the airing of Tiger King, he has become one of the most recognized faces in the U.S. big cat tourism business. He claims to be building a new facility for G.W. Zoo’s animals in Thackerville, Oklahoma, about 65 miles south of the Wynnewood property and near the Texas-Oklahoma border.

The judge’s decision comes seven years after Joe Exotic—whose legal name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage—was ordered to pay Florida-based Big Cat Rescue more than $1 million dollars for intellectual property theft. Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. As part of a long-running dispute with Baskin—who had been critical of how animals were treated at G.W. Zoo—he had changed his company’s name to Big Cat Rescue Entertainment and used branding that closely resembled that of Baskin’s organization.

In 2011, Big Cat Rescue sued Maldonado-Passage and two years later won the court judgment. To avoid payment, yesterday’s ruling states, Maldonado fraudulently transferred his property to his mother, who subsequently transferred it to shell corporations “with the design and intent of removing [G.W. Zoo] property from the reach of Big Cat Rescue, so that it could not be used to satisfy Big Cat Rescue’s judgments.” The court assessed the annual leasehold value of the zoo property at $50,000. The transfer of the property is the first significant move toward satisfying the judgment.

The refusal to pay Big Cat Rescue in the seven years since the court order and the fraudulent measures Maldonado-Passage and associates undertook to avoid it don’t surprise Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon. The clinic is the nation’s only institution focused exclusively on animal law litigation.

“If I didn’t already know these guys and the ways they defy court orders and other legal orders, I would be stunned, but this is business as usual,” Winders says. The disregard for the law on the part of roadside big cat zoo owners is long-standing, she says, pointing out that Maldonado-Passage has been cited more than 200 times for violating the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of exhibited animals. Inspectors repeatedly documented sick, injured, mistreated animals and unclean, unsafe enclosures contaminated by vermin. Maldonado-Passage was required to pay a single $25,000 fine, in 2006. Lowe has been cited by the USDA three times since 2017, with no consequences, Winders says.

Breaking the law repeatedly without repercussions has made these zoo owners “more brazen,” she says. Now, increasingly, we’re seeing harsh judgments “with these bad actors in the big cat world who are engaged in shenanigans and totally disregard court orders.” Maldonado-Passage is serving 22 years in prison for plotting to have Baskin murdered, killing five tigers, and selling tigers illegally across state lines.

On February 27, 2020, a federal court order ruled that Dade City Wild Things, a roadside zoo in Florida, had illegally transferred at least 19 tigers to G.W. Zoo to avoid court-mandated inspection of the animals. The ruling prohibited the owners from ever owning tigers again. Dade City Wild Things has since shut down.

What happens to G.W. Zoo’s animals?

Lowe declined to comment to National Geographic today. But his attorney, Walter Mosley, signaled that the animals at G.W. Zoo will be transferred to a new facility. "We anticipated Carole Baskin getting the title to the former park that once belonged to Joe Exotic, and we did not challenge her attempts to do so,” he told CNN. “All of Jeff's focus is on opening the new Tiger King Park in Thackerville, which should be opening in the next 120 days."

Lowe has promoted the construction of a new animal park for years, and he recently began calling the project Tiger King Park, presumably to take advantage of the noteriety surrounding the Netflix series, Winders says. But first, the USDA must license Tiger King Park and approve the transfer of cats there. “I would hope that they would be very careful in conducting inspection of that site,” Winders says. She notes that to be licensed, a facility should in theory provide evidence that it has a veterinarian on site and be able to show that its animal cages are suitable.

Since the beginning of May, when G.W. Zoo reopened to the public after about a month when it was closed because of the coronavirus, it has experienced a surge of visitors, in no small part because of the Tiger King series. The zoo offers cub petting to dozens of visitors a day, without requiring any protective measures, despite the fact that big cats in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus.

The zoo has long come under criticism from animal welfare advocates and zoo professionals who say it exploits tigers from birth to death and fails to provide adequate food, enclosures, and veterinary care. National Geographic revealed in December that many such private roadside zoos speed-breed their tigers. As soon as a litter is born, the cubs are removed from the mother, inducing her to go into heat sooner than normal, which ensures a constant supply of cubs. Cubs are available for petting between the ages of eight weeks and 12 weeks; after that, they’re too dangerous to interact with visitors and may then be kept for breeding or exhibition. There’s evidence that some are killed.

In a statement provided to National Geographic, Big Cat Rescue says that “if the need arises to make other plans 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.”

Bobbi Brink, owner of Lions, Tigers, and Bears—an accredited big cat sanctuary in San Diego, California—says, “I wish the animals could have been part of the judgment, but unfortunately the laws don’t work like that. They work in the favor of the owner, because [the animals] are property.” She says that if Lowe were to give up the animals, Lions, Tigers, and Bears could transfer each of the 200 animals to accredited sanctuaries.

If Tiger King Park isn’t up and running in 120 days, Brink fears that Lowe could send the animals to other unaccredited roadside zoos, “to get them to where he wants them to be rather than to proper homes.”

Winders says that despite the uncertain future for the animals, the court’s ruling is positive. “It’s one more instance of a court saying to these bad actors you can’t just disregard the law, and it gets us one step closer to this major player being put out of business.”