Wyn­newood tiger feud heats up

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY BRI­ANNA BAI­LEY Staff Writer bbai­ley@ok­la­homan.com

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.”

Tiger es­cape

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.

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