Jeff Lowe, owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, in Oklahoma, posted a photo of lion cub Nala to Instagram in August 2019. “How many likes can our little cutie Nala get?” the caption said.
She got 199.
Ten months after Lowe introduced Nala on social media, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector Bonnie Boone found her lying in mud, “lethargic, depressed and thin.” Boone and colleague Debbie Cunningham were conducting a routine inspection of the zoo, which exploded in popularity after it was featured in Netflix’s Tiger King. The young lion was barely moving and had discharge coming from her eyes and nose, Boone wrote in the inspection report. Her breathing was shallow and rapid. Boone demanded that Nala see a veterinarian immediately.
Boone and Cunningham also documented two arthritic wolves caged on a concrete floor, a grizzly bear with her bones clearly visible beneath her skin, a fisher cat with a lame leg, and the bodies of two tigers buried under a pile of burned rubble. The corpses were attracting biting flies that inflicted bloody wounds on the ears of nearby tigers, bears, and wolves.
On August 17, the USDA suspended Lowe’s license to exhibit animals to the public, as part of an official enforcement action against him and his wife, Lauren Lowe, for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act.
Animal welfare advocates praised the action. “In terms of tiger exploitation, Lowe is one of the top players,” says Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic, at Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon. “He’s one of the leading reasons we’re continuing to have tigers bred” for roadside zoos around the U.S. (Read more: Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild—here’s why it’s a problem.)
Jeff Lowe declined to comment on the USDA’s suspension of his license, saying by email, “We’re suing the USDA so we can’t share anything at this time.” He has told his 189,000 Facebook followers that the findings are false and that the welfare concerns are drama stirred up, in his words, by “loony” animal rights people.
The USDA “has folded to the pressures from PETA and continue to make false accusations against me,” he wrote in an August 18 Facebook post. Lowe describes the USDA’s accusations as “a litany of falsehoods.”
In response to the suspension, which was set to last for 21 days, Lowe announced in the post that he was forfeiting his license. Typically, this would mean the end of his business—there’s little point in keeping animals that don’t return a profit on their upkeep costs. But Lowe says he has a new plan. It’s one that legal experts and even the USDA say might be in violation of the law: He’ll continue to make money off his animals by showing them to the public—but the business will be online and on television instead of in person at his zoo.
After closing Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park to the public, on October 5, Lowe moved all the animals to a new facility, Tiger King Park, in Thackerville, Oklahoma. (The Greater Wynnewood property had already been set to be relinquished to Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary organization based in Florida, as the result of a separate court case in June tied to its former owner, Joseph Maldonado-Passage.) Lowe said he intends to use Tiger King Park as a private film set for “Tiger King-related content.” He’s promised two upcoming reality shows and continues to feature animals in paid “shout-out” videos on the social platform Cameo.
With this move, Winders says, Lowe challenges the USDA to follow him down an uncharted path. Exhibiting wild animals for money without a license is illegal under the Animal Welfare Act, whether it’s done at a brick-and-mortar zoo, on television, or on the internet. But when it comes to the internet, there’s little legal precedent for enforcing the law.
As content featuring captive exotic animals on social platforms such as TikTok, Cameo, and YouTube becomes more popular than ever, the USDA now must decide whether to exert its authority over profit-driven online animal exhibitions or risk setting a troubling precedent, Winders says.
“If the USDA allows commercialization to go unchecked online, it could incentivize the creation of a whole new industry of people monetizing animals [on social media] without any oversight,” she says. It would be “terrifyingly easy” for any social media star to get wild animals “without any expertise whatsoever” and start sharing them with an audience, she says. “Given that conditions are often so bad at facilities when there already is a layer of oversight, I’m very worried about what that could mean for animals.”
Television fame; real-life neglect
Tiger King debuted on Netflix in March right as the U.S. shut down—a pop-culture escape from mounting COVID-19 anxiety. More entertainment than documentary, critics charged, the show glossed over the animal suffering rampant in roadside zoos. The show sparked endless memes; its stars—Lowe, Joseph Maldonado Passage (“Joe Exotic”), and others—rocketed to fame. Even as the pandemic spread among humans and it became clear that big cats could catch it, fans flocked to Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park to pet tiger cubs.
Lowe, Maldonado-Passage’s former business partner and owner of the zoo and its animals, took advantage of his newfound fame, launching a merchandise shop and hyping his soon-to-launch Tiger King Park. He began charging more than $100 per video on Cameo, a platform where fans can pay celebrities to film short, personalized videos.
The USDA’s June inspection came as Tiger King was still featuring heavily in the zeitgeist. Inspectors Boone and Cunningham found that the attending veterinarian—by whom monthly checks of the animals are required under the Animal Welfare Act—had visited the property only twice since early 2019 and that neither visit entailed veterinary checks of all the animals. The inspectors documented sick and injured animals, including Nala, the arthritic wolves, an underweight bear, and several unsafe enclosures, including one lemur cage that had rusted metal.
After the inspectors told Lowe to remedy the problems, they returned in July and saw that little had improved and that the veterinarian still hadn’t been brought in. There was also something new: They reported smelling “the odor of decaying flesh,” which they traced to a not-operational refrigerated truck that was full of spoiling meat. No refrigeration was available on the property for food for the carnivores.
Furthermore, 34 out of approximately 200 animals were missing, “with no disposition papers to document where they have gone,” the report says. Andre Bell, a USDA spokesperson, confirms that the inspectors asked where the animals had gone, but he declined to provide further details.
When the USDA suspended Lowe’s license, on August 17, they issued an enforcement action alleging that he and Lauren Lowe had willfully and repeatedly violated the Animal Welfare Act since 2015. It cited a litany of violations, including failure to provide proper care for animals, failure to safely exhibit animals to the public, falsifying veterinary records, harassing a Nevada animal care official on social media, and more. On Facebook, Lowe denied these claims.
He still owns more than 150 animals, including dozens of big cats, kangaroos, porcupines, and ring-tailed lemurs. Oklahoma is one of four states in the U.S. that allows residents to keep big cats without a permit.
The USDA did not confiscate any animals during the June or July inspections. Bell says that the animals “did not meet the criteria in the regulations for confiscation.” Those criteria, however, state that inspectors may confiscate animals that are suffering as a result of an exhibitor’s failure to comply with the Animal Welfare Act. Winders argues that that threshold was certainly met here. “We’ve seen this over and over where it’s an egregious situation, and [the USDA] doesn’t exercise their confiscation authority and animals languish.” Bell did not respond to a request for comment about this by publication time.
Online exhibition: uncharted waters
If Lowe follows through on using the new Tiger King Park as a film set, he would likely be in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
“Film or television work is considered regulated activity and requires an exhibitor license,” Bell says. “Mr. Lowe may keep his animals, but he cannot conduct regulated activity…[including] filming the animals for display to the public for compensation.”
Lowe has said on Facebook that he’s in negotiations for season two of Tiger King. (Netflix did not respond to National Geographic’s multiple requests for comment.) He told People in June that he’s also signed with the Content Group, a California production company, for a separate reality show that will feature his animals, life at the new zoo, and “ongoing battles with animal rights groups.” The Content Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Lowe’s social media activities also could get him into trouble. He and other exotic animal owners with online followings regularly share videos of themselves swimming with, play-wrestling with, and bottle-feeding big cats. While it’s legal to post such content online, creators who set out to make a profit through sponsorships and advertising would cross the line.
Lowe has produced at least two paid Cameo videos for customers featuring a white tiger named Thor since he lost his license on August 18.
The legal Wild West of the internet
There’s a long history of people thinking the law doesn’t apply on the internet, says Nathalie Maréchal, a senior policy analyst at Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression and privacy on the internet.
The 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is a widely distributed early document on the applicability of government on the growing internet. Written by John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, it says, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
“That was the genesis of the idea that law doesn’t touch you in cyberspace. But it was never actually true,” Maréchal says. Still, “it did take some time for governments and societies to translate and update the laws of the physical world to apply to the internet world.”
That catch-up period has had consequences for animals. In the 1990s, when pet breeders started selling animals on the internet, the USDA chose not to regulate the activity. That led to a boom in unchecked online sales—pets were sold and shipped to customers across the country sight unseen, with no licensing or inspections required for facilities.
A 2013 USDA inspector general report called this a “loophole,” estimating that there were between 8,000 and 15,000 online dog breeders. Later that year, the USDA updated its regulations to say that online dealers without physical storefronts were also subject to the Animal Welfare Act.
One of the concerns about Lowe relinquishing his license is that it makes it much harder to know how the animals are, says Brittany Peet, deputy general counsel of captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation. “At least when he was open to the public, there was some level of oversight,” she says. Not only was the public able to see the animals routinely and document any concerns, but the USDA was able to do unannounced inspections. Now the USDA would need a warrant to inspect his property and animals.
“A warrant can’t be obtained without evidence that animals are in distress,” Winders says. And without public access to the animals, it would be very difficult to obtain evidence in the first place.
The USDA’s open enforcement action against Jeff and Lauren Lowe seeks, among other things, to ban Lauren from getting an exhibitor license. A judge will determine whether they should face penalties, which could include banning Lowe from obtaining a license in the future and fines of up to $11,883 per violation per animal.
Despite any plans Lowe has to continue making money from online animal videos and proposed television shows, which would be illegal, the fact remains that since August, he hasn’t been permitted to sell cub-petting experiences to zoo visitors.
“That was the big moneymaker,” Winders says. “Cub petting is the reason we have as many tigers as we do in captivity in the U.S.” The activity relies on a constant supply of cubs young enough to handle safely. “That’s why we have this breeding mill situation. Once you cut off that incentive to continuously have babies, you’re putting a significant cap on the breeding and influx of animals.”
But for Nala, the young lion the USDA inspectors found unresponsive in the mud, there is hope. On September 21, she and two other lion cubs, Amelia and Leo, were moved to the Wild Animal Sanctuary, in Keenesburg, Colorado, as the result of a separate court case centered on the previous illegal transfer of these animals.
Peet, the PETA Foundation lawyer, was with the cubs on their journey to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in September. “Nala is so lame she can barely walk,” Peet said after the transfer. “And Leo has an obsessive suckling behavior, which very sadly sometimes happens in cats who have been prematurely separated from their mothers. He latches onto and suckles on his sister’s ears as if they were his mother’s nipples.”
A subsequent veterinary examination at Colorado State University found that Nala had multiple fractures, bone malformations, vitamin deficiencies, and “historical poor husbandry.” Pat Craig, the founder and executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, says that although her prognosis is poor, she’s doing well, and her walking is already improving.
On October 4, when Lowe missed the court-mandated deadline to have the animals removed from the Greater Wynnewood zoo, he also relinquished 11 wolves, two bears (found underweight by the USDA inspectors in June), and three more tigers to the Wild Animal Sanctuary. The bears will live in a 240-acre habitat, the tigers in a 45- to 75- acre habitat, and the wolves in 35 acres among several groups. Craig recently flew a drone over Tiger King Park and noted that the “entire facility would fit inside one habitat that we’d give to two or three animals.”
Lowe’s legal troubles are set to continue. In addition to the open USDA case, the PETA Foundation has filed a notice of intent to sue him for violating the Endangered Species Act. The case is similar to a successful action the foundation brought against Tim Stark, another roadside zoo owner featured in Tiger King, that ended with him losing all 182 of his animals and being banned from owning big cats again. The complaint against Lowe alleges that, among other violations, he prematurely separated big cats from their mothers.
Meanwhile, bipartisan lawmakers, various animal welfare organizations, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and others have called for a federal law to regulate big cat ownership. The Big Cat Public Safety Act, under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, aims to prohibit commercial breeding, public handling, and ownership of big cats as pets.