Saturday, June 12, 2021

international

Authorities seize 68 big cats from Tiger King couple who allegedly abused animals, threatened federal official


About 70 big cats were seized by authorities this week from an Oklahoma animal park owned by a couple featured in the Netflix docuseries "Tiger King" who are accused of abusing and mistreating the animals and threatening federal officials, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

Authorities said they recovered 68 big cats, including tigers, lions and ligers, and a jaguar owned by Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe at Tiger King Park in Thackerville, Okla.

The seizure comes as the Lowes, who operated the facility formerly run by imprisoned "Tiger King" star Joe Exotic, are accused of inhumane treatment and ongoing violations of the Endangered Species Act. The couple was sued by the Justice Department last year for exhibiting the big cats without a license as well as jeopardizing the health of their animals. Authorities recovering the animals this week is part of a court-approved agreement to help resolve the civil complaint from the Justice Department.

"This seizure should send a clear message that the Justice Department takes alleged harm to captive-bred animals protected under the Endangered Species Act very seriously," said acting assistant attorney general Jean E. Williams of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

In a news release Thursday, authorities outlined how the three inspections of Tiger King Park since last December by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service resulted in citations for the Lowes for "failing to provide the animals with adequate or timely veterinary care, appropriate nutrition, and shelter that protects them from inclement weather and is of sufficient size to allow them to engage in normal behavior."

"The Lowes have consistently failed to provide their Big Cats with a diet containing the necessary nutrients to allow them to grow properly and thrive," the affidavit says.

Daniel Card, the couple's attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Card told a federal judge last week that the Lowes "want out completely" and were willing to give up their big cats to help resolve the federal complaint against them. The judge had found the Lowes in contempt for violating a previous order regarding the care of the big cats, fining them $1,000 a day until they complied.

"They don't want to fight this anymore. They don't want to do it," Card said to the judge, according to the Associated Press. "They want to give the tigers to a . . . sanctuary of their choice and be done with it."

The seized animals will be moved to preserves to receive "proper care and rehabilitation," said Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement.

Jeffrey, 56, and Lauren Lowe, 30, came to fame last year as part of a group of eccentric exotic animal owners starring in "Tiger King," a breakout streaming hit during the early part of the pandemic.

Jeffrey Lowe was portrayed in the series as a Las Vegas playboy whose exotic-animal business attracted controversy. Lowe was previously convicted in 2018 for illegally using animals to make money in Las Vegas, bringing tigers to Sin City and selling meet-and-greets and photos with the cats. A plea agreement resulted in a suspended jail sentence with a "stay out of trouble" order, including no animal violations, reported KTNV.

Exotic, the show's main character whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was convicted last year for a murder-for-hire scheme against rival Carole Baskin and violating federal wildlife laws. The 58-year-old was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. Exotic - a one-time business partner of Lowe's who handed over to him ownership of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla., due to financial troubles - claims Lowe set him up. (Lowe has denied the allegation.)

But the focus from authorities intensified after the Lowes shut down the Wynnewood facility in August and moved the animals last year to the private park in Thackerville, a town of more than 400 located roughly five miles from the Texas border. USDA inspectors found some of the animals "in poor health and living in substandard conditions at the Wynnewood facility," officials said, and wanted to follow up.

During inspections of Tiger King Park, officials found several animals suffering from what appeared to be neurological abnormalities, stunted growth and lameness, according to the affidavit. Inspectors said they found that boneless chicken was the only food available for the big cats, which officials point to as a failure to uphold balanced nutritional needs and caused some to "suffer greatly."

When it came to shelter, the couple allegedly kept the animals in places not strong enough to protect them from extreme weather and not big enough to allow them to participate in basic behavior.

The affidavit also noted how the Lowes allegedly verbally and physically harassed law enforcement officials inspecting their property. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent alleged that Lauren Lowe threatened to kill him during a search of Tiger King Park this month. "I'm gonna kill him," she said in reference to the agent, according to the affidavit.

When asked about the interaction from investigators, the agent said, "The statement was especially intimidating because their former Tiger King business partner is serving a prison sentence for hiring a hit man to assassinate a business rival in another state."

The same agent accused Jeffrey Lowe of intimidation, the affidavit says. Lowe allegedly crumpled up a property receipt and screamed profanities, the agent said, "in an apparent self-scripted effort to film the exchange for what he had commented earlier would be sold to Netflix as 'Tiger King 2.'"

The Justice Department's announcement was celebrated by former Oklahoma attorney general Drew Edmondson, co-chair of the National Law Enforcement Council for Animal Wellness Action. He told the AP that the move was the latest win in federal efforts to shut down an "unethical roadside zoo operator."

"Joe Exotic and Jeff Lowe ran slipshod operations and the chickens have come home to roost," Edmondson said.

Published : May 21, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Timothy Bella