Wynnewood tiger feud heats up
A roadside animal park and its colorful zookeeper, Joe Exotic, are entrenched in a new battle with animal welfare activists over the fate of 19 tigers from a troubled Florida zoo.
Greater Wynnewood Animal Park zookeeper and Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Joe “Exotic” Maldonado says the animals now legally belong to him. The nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wants the Florida tigers to go to a wildlife refuge in Colorado.
Maldonado has claimed to have as many as 200 tigers, lions and hybrid big cats at Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, but federal inspection records from 2016 put the number of cats at the park closer to 100. The zoo has already built new cages to house the Florida tigers, Maldonado said.
“The tigers are here to stay,” Maldonado said. “They are comfortable and they are home.”
In a statement, Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA, said the organization is “gravely concerned about the safety” of the Florida tigers at Greater Wynnewood Animal Park.
The Oklahoma zoo has a history of separating tiger cubs from their mothers for paid photo shoots and play sessions and has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for multiple violations of federal animal welfare laws, PETA said.
“(Greater Wynnewood Animal Park’s) long history of federal Animal Welfare Act violations
proves that it’s unable or unwilling to meet animals’ needs, and PETA will not stop working to relocate these complex big cats to a reputable sanctuary,” Peet said.
The Florida zoo, Dade City’s Wild Things, sent the tigers to Oklahoma in July, allegedly to avoid a court-ordered inspection of the tiger petting zoo by animal welfare activists.
The tigers left Florida the same day a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the Florida zoo not to remove any of the animals.
PETA vowed this week to keep fighting to have the Florida tigers removed from Maldonado’s care.
PETA filed a lawsuit against Wild Things in October, claiming the Florida zoo violated the federal Endangered Species Act by separating tiger cubs from their mothers for paid photo sessions with customers.
A metal livestock trailer carrying the tigers from Dade City, Florida, arrived at Great Wynnewood Animal Park in the heat of July.
The animals were kept in a hot metal cargo trailer for the duration of the 1,200-mile drive from Central Florida to Oklahoma, court documents filed in the case claim. During the two-day drive, a female tiger gave birth to three cubs inside the trailer that were either still-born or died shortly after being born.
Video of the Florida tigers’ arrival at the Greater Wynnewood zoo that Maldonado posted to Facebook show the animals being tranquilized and dragged out of the trailer by their feet and tails.
Maldonado blamed the tiger cub deaths on PETA in the video that included footage of the dead animals found inside the trailer, as well as workers digging a grave for the cubs.
“I want to show you what (expletive) PETA is responsible for,” Maldonado said in the video. “Look at these dead babies.”
In a phone interview, Maldonado compared PETA to the terrorist group ISIS and said the Florida tigers are better off at his Oklahoma zoo.
“Who the hell is PETA to me?” Maldonado said. “They are domestic terrorists.”
A big cat expert paid by PETA who viewed Maldonado’s Facebook videos said in court documents that Florida tigers were treated in a careless, dangerous manner upon their arrival in Oklahoma.
The tiger cubs could have died after being smothered or crushed to death inside the cramped cattle trailer during the drive to Oklahoma, the expert wrote. Stressed from the transport, it’s also likely the mother tiger devoured at least some of the cubs, big cat expert Jay Pratte wrote in a court affidavit.
The animals were visibly stressed and severely dehydrated when they arrived in Oklahoma, Pratte wrote. Acting on Maldonado’s directions, inexperienced zoo staff shot the tigers with sedatives without regard for proper dosage or sterilization, he wrote.
“The unloading process is literally being handled like a rodeo,” Pratte wrote.
The owner of a different Florida tiger refuge who was also asked to take some of Dade City’s Wild Things animals wrote in a court affidavit also filed by PETA that the tigers were transported to Oklahoma in cruel conditions without any drinking water in a cattle trailer.
The Florida animal refuge owner described the tigers inside the trailer as “foaming at the mouth, urinating on each other.”
Maldonado said he is not to blame for the condition and circumstances in which the Florida tigers arrived in Oklahoma. A veterinarian was on site to supervise unloading the animals, he said.
“All Joe did was receive them,” Maldonado said. “Joe didn’t load them or nothing.”
PETA claims Greater Wynnewood Animal Park has a history of poor animal care and should not be allowed to keep the Florida tigers.
This week, PETA released a statement condemning Greater Wynnewood Animal Park for an incident in May in which zoo staff shot and killed a female tiger that was roaming free inside the park after escaping a cage. The zoo was closed at the time of the incident and no visitors were inside the park.
“Ramshackle enclosures and dangerous wild animals could easily be a deadly combination,” Peet said in a statement. “G.W. Zoo’s history of showing a flagrant disregard for the safety of both big cats and employees is exactly why PETA urges everyone to stay away from roadside zoos like this one.”
Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes said although the animal did not escape the zoo’s perimeter fence, he believes he should have been notified of the incident. The sheriff’s department has no record of any calls for an escaped animal from the zoo and Rhodes was unaware of the tiger escape until contacted by The Oklahoman.
“As sheriff, I am interested in knowing what these guidelines are in these type situations,” Rhodes said in an email. “It has been years since I have received or been asked to approve any protocols.”
The tiger escaped from an exercise enclosure during an evening feeding at the zoo on May 15 and was near the zoo’s perimeter fence when it was shot, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on the incident. The report notes that zoo staff followed emergency protocols for the tiger escape and immediately notified the USDA of the incident.
Maldonado says zoo staff were forced to kill the tiger because it was nighttime and they didn’t want to risk the animal escaping the zoo’s 8-foot perimeter fence.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of — it was 9:30 at night and we couldn’t chase a tiger in the dark,” Maldonado said. “Any zoo in America would have done the same.”
A tiger watches guests at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
Joe Maldonado works with Boco, a male hybrid cat, at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood.
These two tigers were part of a group of 19 animals shipped to Greater Wynnewood Animal Park in a cattle trailer.