Here’s the real story behind ‘Tiger King’ – animal abuse for profit

Note: I first posted this on my Facebook page, where it was shared over 3500 times in response to the Netflix series Tiger King.

I have not watched the Netflix series Tiger King, because I don’t need to. I lived through many of these events.

Most of my friends made here after 2014 don’t know that I started in activism working for animal protection — and specifically, the welfare of dangerous wild animals in captivity. It made a huge impact in my life, and I like to think that I made a bit of a difference too.

You may remember October 19, 2011, when Terry Thompson, a private owner in Zanesville, Ohio, cut open the cages for dozens of his dangerous wild animals, then committed suicide. On that rainy night the police had to slaughter 49 animals, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, a pair of grizzlies, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon.

In public policy speak, it was a classic “triggering event” that led to a long overdue change in Ohio law.

At the time, Ohio was a hotbed for breeding and dealing of dangerous wild animals. We had no laws, so the bad players flocked here, and most of them were just as weird and crazy as Joe Exotic.

There was Lorenza Pearson, owner of L&L Exotics in Copley, Ohio, who racked up 969 violations of the Animal Welfare Act before the health department — note, not the USDA — shut him down. Even one of his tigers killing a 2-year-old didn’t get him shut down.

There was Sam Mazzola of Columbia Station, who took his bears to bars so people could pay to wrestle them, and whose caretaker was killed by a bear. He was only stopped after being found at home “bound to the bed with handcuffs, chains and padlocks” with a sex toy in his mouth.

Then there was Terry Wilkins, who owned Captive Born Reptiles, a snake breeding and dealing operation on Morse Road in Columbus. He was arrested after he took an alligator to a day care facility, and police found snakes longer than 12 feet in bad condition at his store.

The accredited zoos in Ohio tried for years to get the trade in dangerous wild animals shut down. A lot of that trade went straight through Joe Exotic’s facility, the GW Zoo in Oklahoma. If there was any state with fewer restrictions than Ohio, it was — and still is — Oklahoma.

In the wake of the Zanesville massacre, Ohio finally cracked down on this trade — and I was part of making that happen.

At the time I was spending most of my free time volunteering for Humane Society of the United States. I started in 2010 collecting signatures to pass the Humane Farms ballot initiative in Ohio, which would have given farm animals enough room to stand up, turn around, and spread their limbs.

The Ohio Farm Bureau fought that initiative tooth and nail, sending people out to follow us around and interrupt our signature gathering whenever they caught wind of where we might be.

The Farm Bureau also had a hand in propping up the exotic animal trade in Ohio by co-sponsoring the Mt. Hope Exotic Animal Auction. Paul and I visited this event, and it was one of the most depressing, disgusting, and heart-wrenching things I have ever seen.

HSUS didn’t end up taking the Humane Farms campaign to the ballot, instead working out a deal with the Farm Bureau to start a farm animal welfare board that is still in operation today. Equally important, the Farm Bureau agreed not to stand in the way of regulations in Ohio on puppy millers and breeders and dealers of dangerous wild animals.

The alliance between the Farm Bureau and the wild animal breeders was severed — which meant after the Zanesville massacre happened, we could move quickly.

Within a week Ohio House Rep. Troy Balderson of Zanesville (now in the U.S. Congress) introduced a bill with some of the strongest regulations nationally on owners and breeders of dangerous wild animals.

No longer was it acceptable to keep lions, tigers, bears, chimpanzees and more in barns, backyards, and basements. They had to be kept in enclosures that provided enough room and enrichment for the species.

Gone were the days of breeding them indiscriminately and pushing them into an oversaturated market. Not many people can keep a tiger, yet there are more tigers in Texas than in all of the wild because they are bred to use as cubs in photo ops, then thrown away. No one wants an adult tiger.

If you want an idea of what happens to adult tigers, look up Operation Snow Plow. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with several other agencies, busted a ring in which people paid to shoot tigers and other wild animals in the back of a semi; then the skins, meat, and bones were sold on the black market. These majestic animals are literally worth more dead than alive, and the financial incentives are to kill them.

Incredibly, the USDA allows people to handle tiger cubs at a very specific age — 4 to 12 weeks — so dealers like Joe Exotic breed them to be handled by humans at a time when they should be with their mothers. After they get too old for that, most end up dead or in horrible conditions.

But a few lucky ones go to accredited sanctuaries — including many of the animals rescued from substandard Ohio facilities after our law passed.

There was Clyde the chimpanzee, literally kept in a cage in a garage in Dayton for 40 years. He went to Center for Great Apes in Florida, where he learned to walk again and even got a girlfriend before he passed on.
So many lions, tigers, bears and wolves from Ohio were placed in accredited sanctuaries across the country. Bobbi Brink, director of Lions, Tigers, and Bears sanctuary in southern California was personally responsible for rescuing and driving dozens of these animals to their new homes.

Visit any accredited wild animal sanctuary — and there are many across the country — and you will find animals rescued from Ohio. Some owners like Denise Flores of Ashland accepted the new law and found new homes for their animals themselves. Others, like Kenny Hetrick of Toledo, refused to cooperate, and eventually the state took their animals away.

The Ohio Association of Animal Owners fought the law hard. They tried to get it watered down to require only a USDA permit to own and breed dangerous wild animals rather than the stronger state requirements. To his credit, Gov. Kasich said no. But the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers got the regulations on snakes watered down quite a bit.

My role was to lead the response on behalf of the sanctuaries. I solicited testimony from directors of a dozen accredited sanctuaries for dangerous wild animals, explaining the welfare requirements for these animals and the cost of food and veterinary care.

I got to take around two VIPs – Patty Finch, director of the accrediting organization Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and Carole Baskin, director of Big Cat Rescue — to meet with key legislators who would be voting on the bill. I also testified myself.

Above is a photo of Joe Exotic giving me the evil eye as I testified for the first time ever in front of a state legislature. Yes, Joe drove here from Oklahoma for the hearing, showing off his bullet hole tattoos in the Statehouse hallway. He also followed us to our cars on the way to the parking garage, menacing enough that we had to get a security escort.

This experience is what led me to seek a master’s in public administration — and it led Paul into putting together a whole new class on animal studies as a lens into the social sciences at University of Dayton.

To support that, we conducted a multi-year research project in which we visited dozens of zoos and sanctuaries, both accredited and non-accredited, and interviewed their directors and staff.

One of the seven accredited animal sanctuaries we visited was Big Cat Rescue, and I have nothing but good things to say about the work Carole Baskin and her team does there to help animals.

The facilities at Big Cat Rescue are top notch — huge natural enclosures, up to two acres each. The staff and volunteers have an incredible routine of animal care. When dealing with animals like this, you must be on your toes at all times because one slip can be fatal — and they are. I urge anyone who has questions about Big Cat Rescue to go see it for themselves.

I can’t speak to Carole’s personal life, but you can read her refutation of her portrayal in the Netflix series here –

I can speak to her work to help big cats, and it is some of the most important work in the world. Not only has Big Cat Rescue taken in dozens and dozens of big cats from horrible conditions all of the country, they have also been instrumental in passing better laws for big cats, not just in Ohio but nationally.

Like other accredited sanctuaries, BCR has cats from Ohio. In 2002, they took in several lions and tigers from Siberian Tiger Foundation of Gambier, operated by Diana McCourt aka Diana Cziraky. All these animals were declawed and some were defanged – all in violation of Animal Welfare Act.

The facility chained up its cats and, for a fee, allowed up to 20 people to enter the enclosure and handle the animals. Keepers sprayed the cats in the face with vinegar if they became aggressive. At least 10 visitors including several children were bitten and mauled, with the predictable outcome that some of the cats were killed. The survivors went to BCR after the USDA finally took away Cziraky’s license.

More recently, in 2016, BCR took in a tiger from Kenny Hetrick’s place in Toledo. She had been living with four other tigers in an enclosure the size of a bedroom, and the other tigers beat up on her. When she got to BCR, she couldn’t walk, but she learned to walk and swim in her new home. (Unlike other big cats, tigers are very good swimmers.)

As part of our research project, Paul and I visited Kenny Hetrick in 2012. He seemed to care about his animals, but had no idea how to ensure their welfare and no regard for safety. He bragged about how many times he and his wife had been mauled and stitched up. He walked into the bear enclosure and left the door wide open with us standing just the other side. He showed us books about training techniques that emphasized dominance, not positive reinforcement.

One place Paul and I did not visit was Joe Exotic’s zoo in Oklahoma. We didn’t think it would be safe since we had both testified in favor of the Ohio law. But video from undercover investigations by both HSUS and PETA gives you a pretty good idea what the place was like: a hellhole in which tiger cubs were beaten to perform and surplus adult tigers were killed to make room for more.

For years we were afraid Joe Exotic would pull what Terry Thompson did in Zanesville, finding some way to kill all the animals at his zoo, or get them killed. Instead his boyfriend ended up dead and he tried to kill Carole. He had threatened her for years before he was arrested. His arrest was a relief to the entire animal protection community.

Carole is outspoken about the practices of bad actors who continue to breed and deal big cats and exploit these animals for profit. This has earned their wrath, but she speaks out anyway because it’s the right thing to do. She has also long advocated to pass national animal welfare standards with the Big Cat Public Safety and Protection Act that would prohibit breeding and selling these animals by unaccredited dealers nationwide.

It’s very sad to me to see so many people attacking Carole and the work of Big Cat Rescue because of a TV show that by all accounts hinges on the salacious details and skips over the very real issue of animal welfare.

The wildlife trade is up there with the trade in guns, drugs, and human trafficking as one of the most profitable and egregiously cruel industries in the world. Yet it is little known, barely talked about, and with few resources to fight it. The fight is left in large part to people like Carole Baskin.

It is truly disheartening to see so many people who know nothing about the plight of these animals denigrate the important work that Carole and so many others are doing because of a sensationalized TV show.

If they had any idea what it takes to run a wild animal sanctuary, what these animals have been through, and how little protection they actually have — maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to jump to salacious jokes at their expense.

It’s not just Carole who they are attacking to get their jollies. It’s every lion, tiger, bear, wolf, chimpanzee, and other animal from Ohio who I fought to get a better life for — and all those still languishing in hell holes like Joe Exotic’s old zoo — whose new ownership isn’t any better — and all the animal victims who didn’t survive this cruel industry.

They can’t speak up for themselves. It makes me really angry to see so little regard for them.

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