The Tiger King Untamed

by Holly Wall

07/02/2014

“Hang on, I’m gonna go out there and throw up.”

Near the end of our first hour-long interview, Joe Exotic, a.k.a. Joe Schreibvogel, interrupted my question and hoofed toward the gift shop’s back door, his shoulder-length, bleach-blond mane waving at me beneath a beige ball cap. While I waited, I browsed the wares for sale around me. There were the typical stuffed animals and animal-themed tchotchkes you’d expect to find at the zoo, but there were some unexpected things as well: lion bobbleheads, for instance, available with or without tiny dachshunds perched on their paws. Tiger posters framed in cheap plastic. Hormel microwaveable meals. Bumper stickers with a mischievous-looking Calvin character in a backwards cap looking over his shoulder, sending a stream of urine onto the letters “PETA” or “HSUS.”

There was an entire wall of brightly colored and patterned men’s thong and brief underwear, some shimmery, all bearing the label “Tiger King.” Beside them, more Tiger King products: soaps, lotions, and premium condoms. Next to those were CDs with Joe Exotic’s name and picture on them, country music he recorded and burned himself. A couple of televisions inside the shop played his music videos on a loop.

Schreibvogel came back in after a couple of minutes, while I was still examining the premium condoms. Each label bore a photo of Joe wearing a shimmering zebra-print shirt, posing next to a tiger in front of a cascading waterfall.

“I took so many pain pills last night trying to get to sleep I made myself sick to my stomach,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “Are you injured?”

“I hurt my back two days ago,” he told me, his mouth growing drier as he spoke. “I ended up in the emergency room, and they gave me some pain pills, but they’re just not working for me. I’m not a pill person.”

Joe at the zoo on a weekday morning looked different from the Joe pictured on his Tiger King-branded candy and lotion. The sequined shirt, unbuttoned to his belly on the label, had been replaced with a camouflage thermal and a tan work shirt; white jeans traded for brown overalls. His mullet was hidden beneath a ball cap and his eyes behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He’s tall and thin, with three stainless steel rings in his right ear, two in his left, and one barely hanging onto his left eyebrow. Permanent eyeliner is drawn around his eyes, and a horseshoe mustache frames his mouth. He has several tattoos, including a tiger on the right side of his chest, a peacock on the left, and three bullet holes, dripping blood, on his chest and stomach.

Joe founded the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park, formerly the G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park, in 1999. It’s named for his brother, Garold Wayne (everyone called him “G.W.”). Schreibvogel, who died in a car accident in 1997. G.W. was moving his sister to Florida from Arlington, Texas, when a drunk driver, behind the wheel of a semi-truck, struck and killed him. After his brother’s death, Schreibvogel sold the Arlington pet store they owned together and used those funds to build the zoo’s first cages, placing them on land paid for by his parents with insurance money from a settlement with the trucking company.

Schreibvogel opened the park with a deer and a mountain lion, and he says his father asked him over and over, “Where are you going to get the animals to open this place?” Schreibvogel didn’t have to look very hard; they came to him in herds. Lions, tigers, and other big cats; bears and monkeys; birds and reptiles.

Today, Schreibvogel claims the park has more than 800 animals spanning 128 species; the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent inventory, counted during a routine inspection and available online, puts it at 199, including 79 tigers, 16 lions, 14 grey wolves, 16 North American black bears, and 10 species of nonhuman primates.[1]

Some of them, Schreibvogel claims, were rescued from derelict owners; others were “re-homed,” the term he uses when he means an animal wasn’t in danger, but its owner couldn’t afford — or didn’t want — to take care of it anymore.

***

Kuo Wei Lee, a housing developer from Plano, had gotten into the emu business in 1995, just as the bubble was about to burst. The emu craze hit Texas hard in the early ‘90s, when a breeding pair of birds fetched some $50,000. Thousands of ranchers flocked to the business, sure that low-cholesterol emu steaks would replace beef at grocery store butcher counters and restaurant tables, and that emu oil would fly off of health food store shelves as a veritable cure-all.

Today, Schreibvogel claims the park has more than 800 animals spanning 128 species.

But consumers didn’t demand emu products like promoters thought they would, and by 1999, when Joe Schreibvogel traveled to Red Oak, Texas, about 20 miles south of Dallas, with two other rescue volunteers, police officers, and high school members of the Future Farmers of America to rescue more than 100 starving, emaciated emus, the birds were virtually worthless — though still terribly expensive. A flock could cost up to $4,000 to feed and house, so ranchers simply stopped feeding them — or, as Lee explained to authorities, fed them only intermittently, sometimes spacing their meals weeks apart, in an attempt to make the feed last.

Schreibvogel didn’t have any experience with emus. He’d rescued native species through his Arlington pet store, and was just beginning to dabble in exotics. But he’d heard about the emus, and he wanted to help. He planned to take the birds back to Wynnewood,[2] where he was just getting his zoo up and running.

The two-day rescue went horribly awry, according to both Schreibvogel and newspaper reports of the incident. Fifteen birds died from the stress of the event, most of them trampled to death by their kin, and Schreibvogel shot another six — with shotguns borrowed from the local police force — to save them from the same fate. Some were killed instantly; others flopped and jumped around before they died.


LISTEN: Karen Dunn, large mammal curator at the Tulsa Zoo, tells us about the polar bear Kavek, who passed away in 2009. Crowds remembered him for his inquisitiveness, but Dunn recognizes him for something much more — an ambassador for his species.


“We saved over 100 birds, and we sacrificed the last… so they would not go through what that one did,” Schreibvogel told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News, pointing to a bird who’d died while being wrangled.

A grand jury convened to investigate Schreibvogel’s handling of the emu rescue declined to deliver an indictment, and Schreibvogel never took the birds home to Wynnewood. They stayed, instead, according to newspaper reports, with a rancher in Tolar, Texas, who promised to bring them back to health and then find them permanent homes. Schreibvogel sued the Dallas Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for defamation, saying its actions during the rescue — it released a videotape of the emu roundup to local reporters — led to a loss of business at his Arlington pet store.

It was only his first fight with an animal rights agency.

***

The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park sits on 45 acres on a narrow road just off of Interstate 35, about an hour south of Oklahoma City. A path leading toward a wooden, Western saloon-looking structure that houses the gift shop and park entrance is lined with signs that alternately urge visitors to donate money to the park and warn them to enter at their own risk.

Above the entrance, a large sign welcomes guests to the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park. Underneath that, in smaller letters, “Accredited by The USZA. [3] ” Admission to the zoo is $15. Guided tours are $35, and playtime with a tiger cub costs $45. For $25, you can buy a bag of raw chicken and feed the big cats. Prices and tour times are displayed behind the front desk and surrounded by autographed photos of celebrities — Pierce Brosnan, Bill Cosby, John Herrington, and Clint Black, to name just a few.

Beyond the gift shop, dirt pathways cut through expanses of grass, leading visitors alongside tall metal cages, inside of which tigers pace, bears wrestle, and monkeys — one of them, at least — gnaw on fat, striped peppermint sticks. The place smells faintly of manure, a scent detectable from the gravel parking lot, where the low roars of caged tigers welcome you to Wynnewood.

Adorning most of the cages are signs dedicating them and the animals inside of them to the memory of someone who has died. “Every cage is a memorial to someone,” Schreibvogel told me. “The animals get to live in honor of people who’ve passed away.

“We actually have three people who are buried under their memorials.”

The park is split into two sections: at the front are, according to Joe’s count, 500 animals — big cats, bears, monkeys, porcupines, hyenas, a camel, and a skunk. Visitors can wander this area on their own, stopping by the tiki lounge for a cocktail or soda pop, letting their kids play in a large sandbox, or taking in a magic show at one of the newly built stages. Free-range chickens, ducks, and geese wander this part of the park, too. As he guides me through the park, Schreibvogel stops to scratch a camel’s head, kiss a lion, baby-talk to the animals.

The back half of the park requires the guidance of a park employee. There are no barriers between the cages and the pathway in this section of the park, which houses 82 big cats, 23 wolves,[4] and a zebu, and the animals back here are warier of humans.

Outside the door to Schreibvogel’s home — he and all nine of his employees live on the zoo’s premises — a tiger named Brutus paces in one cage, and a lion named Bonedigger runs around with four dachshunds in another. Both big cats, as well as the dogs, were born and raised at the zoo. Inside the house, Schreibvogel and his husbands live with three liliger cubs, a baby white tiger,[5] two more dachshunds, a capuchin monkey, and a baboon.

Schreibvogel wasn’t always interested in exotic animals; that was his brother’s passion. They were raised in Wyoming and kept porcupines, antelope, raccoons, and the like, and began dabbling in exotic animals at their pet store in Texas.

“But my brother’s big fantasy in life was to go to Africa and see the jungle,” Schreibvogel said, “the real animals running around wild. And since he died before that happened, that’s kind of why we took the exotic approach, to rescue exotic animals, because he just always wanted to go to Africa and see them in their natural habitat.”[6]

Schreibvogel’s mom, Shirley, helps out around the park. His father, Francis, would, but he was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Schreibvogel has two sisters and a brother he hasn’t spoken to in 17 years, not since G.W. died. Schreibvogel said they thought the money from the insurance settlement, around $140,000, should have been divided among the four of them, not spent on the zoo. “It was just plain greed,” he told me.

Schreibvogel’s two husbands, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, both of whom he wed in January,[7] also work at the park — in fact, he met them here.

Before he opened the park, and before he and his brother ran the pet shop in Arlington, Schreibvogel was the police chief of Eastvale, Texas, a small municipality in Denton County that consolidated with The Colony in 1987.

He’s had four heart attacks.

He’s a country music singer and songwriter — he’s released two albums independently and made several music videos — and a model. He’s got his own personal line of candy, underwear, and toiletries. He performs a Copperfield-style stage illusion show, sometimes using small animals as props, [8] and he airs a nightly web show called JoeExoticTV.

Recently, he told me, he signed a deal with a major cable station to film a reality show at the park, and he hired a New York PR firm to work with Paris Hilton on a personal line of cologne.

And, according to the Humane Society of the United States, he’s a lynchpin in the country’s exotic animal trade. According to veterinary reports, between February 19, 2011, and September 5, 2013, he transferred at least 51 tigers, seven lions, two leopards, five bears, and two monkeys to facilities outside of Oklahoma. In 2013 alone, he transported nearly 21 tigers cubs. And at least two of his lions went to a facility in Illinois known for slaughtering them.

***

It’s widely reported that there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild[9] and that there are more exotic animals living in people’s backyards than there are in zoos. In most states, it’s legal.[10]

Until this year, citizens of Ohio could own any animal they wanted. They didn’t need a permit, and they weren’t required to inform their neighbors if they had a potentially deadly animal in their backyard. That changed on January 1, 2014 — now, no exotic animals are allowed to be brought into the state by private owners;[11] owners of the ones already there must obtain a permit to keep them.

The change in Ohio’s law happened as a result of an incident in Zanesville one October night in 2011. Terry Thompson, who lived with his wife, Marian, and 56 exotic species, released the animals from their pens — including 18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three cougars, and two wolves — before killing himself. Authorities in Zanesville said they had no choice but to shoot the animals they came in contact with. The hunt lasted all night and into the morning, and 49 animals were killed.

Some of Thompson’s defenders, including Schreibvogel, who lobbied against Ohio’s Dangerous Wild Animal Act, allege that Thompson’s so-called suicide was a cover-up; he was actually murdered, they say, by animal rights activists who want to ban private ownership of exotics altogether.

In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States called the G.W. Zoo a “ticking time bomb, potentially 10 times worse than Zanesville.”

Schreibvogel, in response, told CBS News: “It is a ticking time bomb. If somebody thinks they’re going to walk in here and take my animals away, it’s going to be a small Waco.”

Oklahoma is one of the 13 states where individuals are permitted to own exotic animals. The only stipulation is that they must acquire a commercial wildlife breeder’s license, whether they intend to breed the animals or not. The license costs $48 and is issued “to any person whom the director believes to be acting in good faith.”

People who intend to exhibit their animals to the public must be licensed by the USDA and are governed only by that agency, which sends inspectors out to look routinely for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA has no jurisdiction over exotic animal owners — or private sanctuaries — that don’t exhibit their animals.

Some animal welfare advocates argue that the difference between sanctuaries and zoos is that sanctuaries don’t exploit their animals by exhibiting them to the public like zoos do.[12]

Schreibvogel disagrees: “In my opinion, if you’re not licensed by the USDA and you’re not open to the public, you are an animal hoarder that found out that filing 501(c)3, you can get the public to fund your hobby. That’s what 90 percent of them are.”

But Schreibvogel isn’t just giving exotic animals a place to live out the rest of their lives; he’s also buying, selling, trading, and breeding them.

***

In February of 2014, the Humane Society of the United States, The Fund for Animals, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free USA, and Big Cat Rescue filed a petition with the USDA, urging the agency to permanently revoke Schreibvogel’s exhibitor license.

Much of the evidence used against Schreibvogel came from an undercover investigation of the facility and from his own website and YouTube channel — there was a video of Schreibvogel stitching a large, deep wound on a lioness, saying he’d already stitched the same wound several times; one of a dachshund licking a lion’s teeth; and one of a tiger named Gabriel, who’d allegedly been bitten by a rattlesnake, dragged into his den, and forced to drink from a hose. Gabriel vomited at least once and was found dead the next morning. The organizations also pointed to a mauling that occurred in October 2013 — an employee put her arm in a tiger cage and lost part of it[13] — as evidence of Schreibvogel’s failure to properly train employees. 

The Humane Society conducted an undercover investigation at the G.W. Zoo in the summer and fall of 2011, and its subsequent report alleged the park to be “a commercial operation — that often seeks donations for ‘rescued’ animals — that endangers both animals and the public along with possibly violating federal and state laws and regulations.”

Among several claims, HSUS alleged that cubs were “punched, dragged, and hit with whips during ‘training’; visitors, including children, were bitten, scratched, and knocked down by tiger cubs.” The HSUS report also claimed five endangered tigers, three federally protected hawks, six baby skunks, one adult skunk, five baby raccoons, one adult raccoon, a coatimundi, a parakeet, a baby peacock, a goose, a groundhog, a rabbit, and an iguana all died during the investigation, sometimes under mysterious or gruesome circumstances. The report also offered a gory account of a horse being shot five times, and a one-eyed bobcat being “destroyed.”

In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States called the G.W. Zoo a “ticking time bomb, potentially 10 times worse than Zanesville.”

The HSUS isn’t the only organization to investigate the park; in 2006, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent someone in to work undercover from February to June. PETA’s report is more detailed than HSUS’, but the sentiment is similar. Some of the allegations include:

• Two healthy adult tigers were killed, and their teeth were cut out to be given away as gifts before their carcasses were dumped into a reeking, festering garbage pit.

• Two badly injured horses in excruciating pain, including a former racehorse with a broken leg, were dumped at GW, and staff let them suffer for days until they could be butchered.

• Tigers attacked a lion and chewed off her leg. When she pulled out the stitches, her open wound went untreated. Although she moaned for weeks, she was given nothing for pain. …

• Employees were instructed to falsify USDA-required paperwork regarding feeding schedules and environmental enrichment for primates to cover up the fact that animals went hungry for days at a time and that the psychological well-being of primates was not being met.

Both organizations ended their investigations by asking the USDA — and, in HSUS’ case, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation — to investigation possible Animal Welfare Act and other animal cruelty violations.

Two former employees also filed complaints with the USDA. One, Ryan Olszta, who worked as the educational director at the G.W. Zoo from December of 2012 to January of 2013, told the USDA in his complaint — and me, by phone — that he saw juvenile tigers kicked in the face and thrown into the air; adult tigers choked, kicked, and hit with a rod; and staff threatened and abused. Olszta also told me he saw Schreibvogel and Finlay smoking meth and found the drug and paraphernalia in their room.

The USDA currently has three open investigations at G.W. Zoo, although a spokesperson for the agency declined to elaborate on what exactly the USDA is investigating.[14] What the Humane Society claims is most troubling is that Schreibvogel is supplying tiger cubs to other “substandard parks” and zoos around the country, perpetuating more animal abuse and the need for true rescue sanctuaries to house an ever-growing population of aging large cats.

***

Part of the G.W. Zoo’s business involves breeding tigers and other big cats and allowing park visitors to play with the cubs. Anna Frostic, staff attorney for HSUS, says Schreibvogel is taking advantage of a loophole within the Animal Welfare Act that prevents the public from interacting with large cats younger than eight weeks and older than 12 weeks, providing him with a four-week window to charge the public between $25 and $55 to pet, play with, and interact with tiger cubs. The service is still available on the park’s premises, but Schreibvogel shuttered an operation that was taking him to malls around the country, sometimes performing magic shows, almost always charging the public for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to interact with a cute, cuddly tiger cub.

In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States, the World Wildlife Fund, the Global Federal of Animal Sanctuaries, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free USA, The Fund for Animals, Big Cat Rescue, and the Detroit Zoological Society petitioned the USDA to enact a rule that would prohibit the public from interacting with big cats, bears, and nonhuman primates at zoos and parks like Schreibvogel’s.[15]

The petitioning groups wrote: “Animals subjected to public contact exhibition (many endangered) are irresponsibly bred with no regard for genetic integrity; they are prematurely and forcibly separated from their mothers and deprived of normal biological and behavioral development; they are subjected to excessive handling that poses a risk to the health of undeveloped animals and to the safety of humans (especially children) interacting with them; they often travel the country in cramped enclosures for the commercial gain of licensees; and they are often disposed of at substandard facilities when they are no longer commercially useful.”

Schreibvogel said he stopped Tigers in Need, his traveling cub show, more than two years ago, not because of the constant opposition by animal rights advocates, but because he couldn’t find enough dependable help.

“When I decided to stop that, we were on a 42-week tour in 2010 — nope, 2011. And I finished it with 17 days in Las Vegas, and I chased my employees around Las Vegas every day,” he said. “Drunk. They would come in when it was time to go to work — they were just coming in from that night. And when I got home, I parked my semis and I ain’t moved them since. And, you know, I just enjoy being home more now.”

Schreibvogel does admit to breeding his tigers, but said he only produces about seven cubs a year — a notion Frostic was quick to refute, pointing to an incident in 2010 when 23 tiger cubs died over a period of seven months, Schreibvogel said, because of bad kitten formula.[16]  Schreibvogel frequently posts photos to his Facebook page of new litters of big cat and bear cubs and wolf pups, and, according to counts by former park employees, the number of tiger cubs and other animal babies born at the zoo far exceeds seven a year.

Schreibvogel said his park was the first one in the country to produce liliger cubs — a cross between a lion and a liger — as well as taliger cubs, the offspring of a tiger and a liger.

“I work real close with Texas A&M University, with their genetic scientists,” [17] Schreibvogel told me as we toured the park on a cold, wet day in February. The ground was dotted with piles of melting snow and squished beneath our feet. “And, you know, there are so many places out there, sanctuaries — and I hate the word ‘sanctuary,’ because most of them are just scams  — but so many of them out there are sucking donations and money out of the public getting them to think white tigers are inbred and that’s the only way you can get white tigers and so on and so forth.[18] So we started 12, 13 years ago with our first ligers. And what ligers done was proved that, genetically, a tiger and a lion are the same animal or they could not reproduce. So we got healthy ligers, and then we did so many DNA and genetic tests and all of our white tigers and proved none of them are related, so they’re not inbred to be white. So the big myth was, are ligers sterile? So we put a liger female with a lion male and let them grow up together so they knew each other and had the first litter of liligers.[19] So now we’ve proved that cross-breeds are not sterile and can produce healthy offspring as well.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the Tulsa and Oklahoma City zoos, opposes captive breeding outside of its Species Survival Plan, which employs teams of biologists, geneticists, and ecologists to determine which animals of a specific species would be best suited to maintain the genetic integrity of their species. The ultimate goal of this breeding plan is to have the capability to reintroduce a species into the wild, should circumstances ever become that dire.

Dr. Ronald Tilson, a tiger husbandry expert who coordinated the AZA’s Tiger Species Survival Plan from 1987 to 2011, told the USDA: “Breeding practices by public contact exhibitors… seriously undermine legitimate in-situ species conservation efforts, jeopardize animal health and welfare issues, and send false and misleading conservation messages to the general public.”

The problem with breeding isn’t just in the practice itself, opponents argue; once the cubs are too old for the public to interact with, they’re often transferred to other “substandard” facilities.[20] And commercial breeding, Frostic said — as well as allowing the public to interact with cubs — feeds the demand for private ownership of exotic animals, which, in turn, further endangers the species still living in
the wild.

“The evidence we have shows that when people have the opportunity to cavort around with babies of endangered species, it doesn’t make them want to run out and donate money to a conservation campaign; it increases people’s desire to keep animals as exotic pets,” Frostic said. “It perpetuates the cycle of breeding to facilitate that demand.”

On top of that, with the number of tigers being born into captivity in this country — and no clear count of what that number actually is — there’s no guarantee that some of them aren’t ending up in the very lucrative international parts trade.

“If what’s happening in captivity in the U.S. is fueling the trade in tiger parts internationally, that is exactly what is threatening the species in the wild,” Frostic said.

Several organizations, including HSUS and Big Cat Rescue, have signed on to support federal legislation that would ban private possession and breeding of big cats. “If that passes, over the next decade, the captive population of generic tigers — not pure subspecies — would die out and Carole and I could focus all of our effort where it should be, on saving cats in the wild,” Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, wrote to me in an email. “I believe that if all the money spent in this country to keep big cats in inappropriate, tiny, barren cages were spent stopping the poaching and preserving the habitat in the wild, we could keep these cats from going extinct in the wild.”

Howard’s wife, Carole Baskin, founded Big Cat Rescue in 1992. The couple, whose facility once bred big cats itself, are two of Schreibvogel’s most vocal opponents, even going as far as to sue Schreibvogel for violating their copyrights and other intellectual property rights. Schreibvogel has accused Big Cat Rescue and the Humane Society of the United States of being in cahoots, with the ultimate objective of getting “all of the big cats out of every zoo and sanctuary and moved out to their place by the year 2025.”[21]

“As long as I’m in business, and I’m breeding tigers, I screw their 25-year plan,” Schreibvogel said. He said that all of their efforts — the petitions, the press releases — are aimed at putting him out of business. “But unfortunately I’m not the type of person that’s just going to roll over and play dead for them. So I fight back.”

***

The fight with Big Cat Rescue started in 2010. At the time, Schreibvogel was traveling with Tigers in Need, exhibiting tiger cubs and allowing members of the public, for a fee, to play and have photos taken with them.

“For years it has been part of our advocacy work to oppose exploitation of cubs for petting, photo ops, and swimming,” Howard Baskin told me via email. “Prior to 2010 that work was done by Carole, our founder, my wife. When she found a traveling cub display, she would email our supporters asking them to email — or a few might call on phone — and politely express to the venue why this was a miserable life for the cubs and show them that while they may see people come to the venue to do the petting, i.e. draw customers, what they did not see is all the people who love animals and did not want to see this mistreatment.”

Schreibvogel said Carole Baskin’s opposition started in 2006 and that he “pretty much ignored” it until 2010, but it got “worse and worse.” She’d send press releases out about him, post on Facebook, and any time his traveling cub act showed up at a mall, it was met with protesters. Schreibvogel called her “obsessed.”

So, in 2010, Schreibvogel said, he started fighting back, posting his own accusations about Big Cat Rescue on his website and Facebook, airing those accusations on his web show, JoeExoticTV, and sending out his own press releases, many of them attacking Carole Baskin personally. Then he changed the name of his traveling show to Big Cat Rescue Entertainment. He said it was to streamline his marketing materials, but the Baskins argued he was trying to create confusion between the two organizations, and they sued him for copyright infringement. They also sued him for violation of intellectual property rights, accusing him of “using, altering, and/or mischaracterizing” photos and videos that belonged to Big Cat Rescue.

“As long as I’m in business, and I’m breeding tigers, I screw their 25-year plan,” Schreibvogel said. 

Schreibvogel counter sued for slander and libel; the judge threw out his claims in a motion for summary judgment.

Before the case went to trial, Schreibvogel agreed to a Consent Final Judgment, and Big Cat Rescue was awarded nearly $1 million. Then Schreibvogel filed for bankruptcy protection, both personally and on behalf of the park. He said, after spending $280,000, he ran out of money to defend himself. The park’s bankruptcy was dismissed, but his personal bankruptcy is still pending.

Prior to filing bankruptcy, Schreibvogel transferred the deed to the land to his mother and shuttered the G.W. Exotic Animal Foundation, the 501(c)3 nonprofit operating the G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park. The park then resumed operation under a new name — the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park — incorporated under three of his employees. The Baskins allege that the assets of the old zoo were improperly transferred to the new zoo.

“The staff members wanted to incorporate a new zoo to save the animals,” Schreibvogel told me. Those employees — John Reinke, Tracy Schultz, and John Finlay (one of Joe’s husbands) — are still operating under Schreibvogel’s USDA license, but he said he’s working to get them one of their own.

Schreibvogel denies owning or running the park. “I’m not on the board; I don’t wanna be on the board. I don’t wanna own a zoo.”

“Right now,” he said, “I am just the entertainment.”

In the four months since HSUS and others filed the petition asking the USDA to revoke Schreibvogel’s license, more bad news has hit the zoo.

In March, a female chimpanzee named Bongo was found dead on the floor of her cage. Schreibvogel said she likely had a heart attack and that he tried to give her CPR, but PETA sent out a press release and called for the USDA to investigate. “Joe Schreibvogel’s facility is a deathtrap for animals,” PETA spokesperson Delcianna Winders said. A couple of days later, two birds were found dead in their cages. PETA’s press release said photos of the birds, which Schreibvogel posted to his Facebook page, showed evidence of starvation and neglect. Schreibvogel blamed PETA, accusing an employee of working undercover for the organization and starving the birds intentionally, just to make him look bad.

“See, every day, all of our food containers come out of the commissary in special little plastic containers for that day. We found every one of them under the fucking couch in the bird building,” Schreibvogel said. “He purposely didn’t feed them. And it’s a big place to keep track of, but you can only do so much.”

Schreibvogel said he explained Bongo’s situation to the USDA inspector, who seemed to understand, but in mid-May, the agency issued the zoo a citation for failure to provide adequate veterinary care to a black bear that was wounded by another black bear. According to the inspection report, a vet sutured the wound, but it dehisced. Schreibvogel tried to close it, but it was found open and bleeding again. The bear languished for 10 days before the park and the vet decided to euthanize it. The USDA didn’t fine the zoo, but a spokesman for PETA, which sent out a press release about the citation, said it could “be used to  support future enforcement action by the USDA against the exhibitor.”

Schreibvogel issued his own press release, saying PETA has taken “some drastic measures to tarnish the image of local zoos like The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological,” blaming PETA, in effect, for the bear’s death. The release goes on: “PETA’s attitude to animal treatment has resulted in unfortunate incidents such as the latest incident where the zoo was compelled to euthanize a bear. Joe Exotic was personally involved in the treatment of the bear that was injured in a turf war. Joe had his treatment strategy all figured out but it was abruptly interrupted and stopped by PETA authorities, leading to the death of the animal.”

Schreibvogel said the barrage of accusations against him are nothing more than attempts by his foes to raise money for themselves. “You know, I don’t even have to know you. If I say that you beat your pug every day, and I’m trying to save your pug, whether I am or not, I could raise 2,000 bucks today trying to save your pug,” Schreibvogel said. “So if they can make you look bad, people send them money. Because they think they’re going to help my animals, when actually, in turn, they’re doing nothing but hurting our funding.”

Olszta told me: “I think Joe started out with the right intention. I think he truly did want to help animals at one point, back when he first started, and then it turned into the natural human want for money. I think money has changed him.”

Another former employee, who worked at the park as recently as this year, has filed a new complaint with the USDA, alleging, among other things, that Schreibvogel used a shovel to kill a domestic cat, that he and his husbands ran over emus with ATVs, that birds and reptiles were inadequately fed, and that several wolf pups died without anyone investigating why.

Schreibvogel’s response to the petitions and the accusations of abuse has been: “Come look. See for yourself.” And, according to him, people have.

While the bad press has hurt the park’s funding, Schreibvogel said it’s also brought people to the park, people curious about what’s happening there, people who wouldn’t otherwise know where Wynnewood, Oklahoma, is or who Joe Exotic is. And Schreibvogel plans to use that to his advantage.

As soon as he gets his employees their own USDA license, “Joe is just going to Hollywood,” he said.

“You bet, you bet. I get probably a TV show or a movie offer once a week. All because — well, that’s where I’ve got to kind of thank the animal rights people, because nobody would know me if it weren’t for them.”


Footnotes:

1.  It’s hard to tell whose count is accurate. Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, has said: “As a facility licensed by USDA, Big Cat Rescue is regularly inspected; through these inspections I have learned of the deficiencies in USDA oversight of exhibition facilities. For example, it appears to be routine practice for USDA exhibitors to simply ask licensees for an inventory of their animals, as opposed to personally verifying these numbers.” On top of that, animals frequently move into and out of the park. Between November 14, 2013, and March 10, 2014, for example, the park’s inventory was down by 18 tigers and up by 11 North American black bears. Also, the USDA does not count birds or reptiles in its inventories, because they are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act.

2.  Pronounced “Winnie-wood.”

3. The United States Zoological Association’s mailing address matches the G.W.’s Zoo’s physical address, and information on its website mimics that of the zoo’s.

4.  According to Schreibvogel’s count.

5.  All big cat cubs live in Schreibvogel’s home while they’re on the bottle. They move outside when they’re about three or four months old.

6.  During the emu rescue, Schreibvogel told a reporter with the Dallas Morning News that his brother’s “lifetime dream was to go to Australia.”

7.  Neither gay marriage nor polygamy is legal in Oklahoma, but Schreibvogel refers to the ceremony, attended by about 100 people, as a wedding and his partners as husbands. And he says no one in or around his small town has criticized or said anything negative to him about it.

8.  Schreibvogel used to use tigers in his magic show, but he stopped amid protests from animal welfare activists.

9.  One estimation puts that number at 5,000, and most of those are kept by private owners, not zoos.

10.  Only 21 states ban exotic animal ownership, and most of those laws concern big cats, bears, wolves, primates, and reptiles. Other states have a “partial ban,” allowing ownership of some exotic animals but not others. Eight states have no regulations regarding exotic animal ownership, and, in 13, a permit or a license is required.

11.   Exempted are sanctuaries, research institutions, and facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America.

12. The Global Federation for Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting organization, says “a sanctuary is a facility that rescues and provides shelter and care for animals that have been abused, injured, abandoned or are otherwise in need” and there can be “no commercial trade, no invasive or intrusive research, no unescorted public visitation or contact, and no removal of wild animals for exhibition, education, or research.”

13. This March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released the findings of its investigation into the incident, determining “the employer houses exotic animals such as bears and felids. Protective barriers were not provided around feeding chutes, the area around the gates used to access felid and bear enclosures, and the area around the opening to the catch pens used for felids and bears.” OSHA fined Schreibvogel $2,400 (reduced from the original proposed fine of $5,200). The employee who was injured still works at the park.

14. According to a USDA spokesperson, one of the open investigations began in 2010, one in 2012, and one in 2013. The USDA has investigated the G.W. Zoo a total of eight times since 2003. In 2006, the USDA found the park guilty of several Animal Welfare Act violations, suspended operations for two weeks, and fined Schreibvogel $25,000.

15. According to the petition, public interaction with exotic animals is a “lucrative trend” in at least 70 parks and zoos around the country.

16. The Food and Drug Administration tested samples of the formula provided by Schreibvogel and found no traces of salmonella or Cronobacter sakazakii.

17. A genetics professor at A&M who said he knew Joe did not want to be quoted for this story.

18. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, white tigers are indeed the product of intentional inbreeding. “Most white tigers currently in captivity are Amur-Indian hybrids that have been highly inbred to achieve continued occurrence of the colormorph,” the association stated in a white paper available on its website. “…In the case of the white tiger one recessive allele has to come from each parent to allow for expression of the white striped color morph. While this has happened rarely in wild tiger populations, such as one in India many decades ago, and may occur in wild populations of various species occasionally (e.g., white deer, lion, ferret), such traits only rarely get expressed, and, when expressed, it is very likely that they confer a disadvantage resulting in reduced fitness for a given individual under most circumstances.”

19. Three cubs, all female.

20. According to HSUS’ Anna Frostic, AZA-accredited zoos never get their animals from private commercial breeders.

21. Both Frostic, of the Humane Society, and Howard Baskin called Schreibvogel’s accusation “ridiculous.”


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 11, June 1, 2014.