The couple who took over the once-popular “Tiger King” roadside animal park after Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage went to prison are now in trouble themselves.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that the federal government has taken Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe to court, accusing them and their company of inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals at the Oklahoma zoo.
“The Lowes’ failure to provide basic veterinary care, appropriate food, and safe living conditions for the animals does not meet standards required by both the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
A civil complaint filed by federal prosecutors alleges violations by the couple, Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and Tiger King LLC of:
- the Endangered Species Act, by “illegally taking, possessing, and transporting protected animals”;
- the Animal Welfare Act, by “exhibiting without a license and placing the health of animals in serious danger.”
The imprisonment of “Joe Exotic” following convictions for murder-for-hire and animal abuse was documented in the hit Netflix documentary series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness."
One of the featured personalities on the show was Jeffrey Lowe, who convinced Maldonado-Passage to put the Wynnewood, Oklahoma facility in his name after his legal troubles began.
After “Joe Exotic” was sentenced to 22 years in prison, Jeff and Lauren Lowe took full ownership of the park, reopening it in the middle of 2018. They operated the attraction until this past August, when their own troubles began mounting.
The Wynnewood facility exhibited federally-protected animals, including tigers, lions, and other big cats, a grizzly bear, and ring-tailed lemurs, federal authorities said Thursday.
USDA Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service inspectors who visited in June and July reported finding several animals in poor health while living in substandard conditions, they said.
The Lowes didn’t provide “timely and adequate veterinary care,” the federal complaint against them says, “causing the animals to suffer from easily treatable conditions, in some cases resulting in untimely death.
“Animals were not provided with sufficient quantities of appropriate food and were underweight and suffering from nutritional deficiencies, making them susceptible to fractures, unable to stand or walk, and exhibiting neurological problems,” it adds.
Because the Lowes also failed to maintain sanitary and safe conditions, the complaint alleges, animals were victimized by flies who continuously attacked, bit and penetrated their skin, laying eggs on open or irritated skin and causing infestations of maggots and painful sores.
Inspectors also reported finding “foul-smelling, partially burned and decomposing big cat carcasses” and a broken-down refrigerator truck containing rotting meat.
As an example of neglect, inspectors pointed to Nala, a 16-week-old lion cub who they said they found “lethargic, depressed [and] thin,” unable to “get up out of the mud even after prompting.”
Nala had discharges coming from her nose and eyes and sores on her ears and had trouble breathing, they said.
A federally-ordered examination by a veterinarian found an upper respiratory infection, dehydration and a urinary tract infection, as well as a "chronic bone fracture," fly strikes, parasites, and fleas.
Nala was transferred to a wildlife sanctuary in Colorado in September.
Jeff Lowe called the allegations "a litany of falsehoods" in a Facebook post.
“If we lose a lawsuit, we simply change the name and open another business someplace else,” federal authorities quoted him as also saying.
The USDA suspended Lowe's Animal Welfare Act exhibitor license and initiated an administrative action to permanently revoke it.
Days later, Lowe unilaterally terminated his license and “sought to put his operation beyond USDA inspection and investigation,” the federal complaint alleges.
The Lowes then moved several animals to a property in Thackerville, Oklahoma, located in the middle of a rural, residential area, it says.
The new site would be called “Tiger King Park,” they said, and would operate as a film set for television shows and other video content – even though the couple doesn’t have a license to do so, federal prosecutors said.
Lowe had been in trouble before. In 2018, a judge suspended a jail sentence and ordered him to pay $2,500 in restitution for doing business without a license in Las Vegas, the federal complaint says.
Lowe apparently had operated an attraction he called "The Jungle Bus," which offered baby lions, tigers, bears, lemurs, kangaroos and monkeys for private parties, casino events, photo shoots, movies and commercials – as well as for “extended private encounters,” it says.
PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet, who appeared in "Tiger King," issued a statement Thursday night:
"The dominos are continuing to fall with nearly every animal abuser featured in Tiger King now in custody, out of business, or facing lawsuits or charges, including criminal charges," Peet said. "The DOJ's lawsuit is another sign that Lowe's animal-exploiting days are numbered and that the big cat cub-petting industry is finished, something that PETA has worked hard for. PETA is eager to see every exploited animal sent to a happy, reputable home."
PETA noted that Nala and two other young lions, Amelia, and Leo, "are recovering and thriving" at the The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado.
Federal authorities are asking a U.S. District Court judge to “require the defendants to relinquish certain animals to the United States, to cease violating these laws, to award the United States costs, and to grant other relief as appropriate.”
They’re also seeking a court order to permit immediate inspection of the facility, to prevent the Lowes from exhibiting their animals in person or through online platforms, to prevent the Lowes from acquiring or disposing of any animals during the injunction, and for any and all veterinary records for any animals treated during the injunction.
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