68 lions, tigers and other panthers once owned by "Joe Exotic", the flamboyant zoo owner at the heart of the documentary Tiger King, have been seized the US Department of Justice said on Thursday.
Prosecutors said they believed a jaguar, seven lions, 46 tigers and 15 lion-tiger hybrids owned by Jeffrey Lowe and his wife, Lauren Lowe, had been sold, purchased or transported, which would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The affidavit said: “There is probable cause to believe that the 68 big cats and the jaguar continue to be harmed and harassed and, therefore, unlawfully taken in violation of the ESA.”
“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 Williams of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
This documentary series Tiger King traces the life of the exuberant "Joe Exotic", 58, his real name Joe Maldonado-Passage, who amassed a small fortune thanks to a zoo opened in 1999 in Oklahoma, before losing everything. He was sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in prison for attempting to assassinate his rival, Carole Baskin, an animal advocate who criticised his methods, including the excessive reproduction and mistreatment that resulted in the death of several animals.
Joe Exotic's former business partner, Jeff Lowe, and his wife Lauren, officially bought the zoo from him a year before his conviction and managed the "Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park". In June 2020, a court ordered them to transfer the property, except for the animals, to Carole Baskin.
They then took the beasts to another area and planned to open the "Tiger King Park" in 2021.
The couple was accused in November of violating the ESA and the Animal Welfare Act.
Authorities noted that ill-treatment of the cats continued under their management. According to court documents, the wild animals were not fed, cared for, or sheltered adequately, resulting in the deaths of three young big cats dying from malnutrition and two others of suspicious conditions.
The couple, having refused to comply with the injunctions of the authorities, were ordered to remove the animals. But officers in charge of the case found it difficult to deal with the couple.
"Lauren Lowe threatened to kill me," Constable Kevin Seiler said in a statement in May. "His words were particularly intimidating given that their former partner is in jail for hiring a hitman."
Eventually, the "rescue operation" was carried out over several days, with the seizure of a total of 45 tigers, six lions, 11 ligers (lion and tiger crossbreed) and one black panther, according to a statement from the Ministry of Justice, which does not specify where they were transferred.