Nevada “Tiger King” bill, animals seized from Jeff & Lauren Lowe, & 11 “critical violations” of Animal Welfare Act assessed against Tiger Creek
RENO, Nevada; THACKERVILLE, Oklahoma; TYLER, Texas––Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak on June 4, 2021 signed into law a so-called “Tiger King” bill, “which bans public contact with big cats, elephants, primates, wolves, bears, and hyenas,” summarized People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] staff writer Michelle Feinberg.
The “Tiger King” bill “will go into effect on July 1, 2021,” Feinberg added, claiming a significant legislative victory for PETA––if the new law is actually enforced.
Weakened before passage
But the “Tiger King” bill, as passed, was also a defeat, explained The Nevada Independent, because “In its original form, the bill, SB344, prohibited owning and breeding wild animals,” homing in on the focal issues pertaining to dangerous and exotic wildlife in private possession, “but it was significantly watered down. Now, the bill prevents people who own a wild animal from allowing it to come into contact with the general public, including through allowing people to take a photo while holding the wild animal.”
This is a major revenue-generating activity for roadside zoos, traveling exotic animal shows, and quasi-“sanctuaries” that allow––or encourage––animals to breed and operate as petting zoos.
“Members of the Nevada state assembly voted 35-6” in favor of the bill, continued The Nevada Independent, “nicknamed for the 2020 Netflix series” which extensively exposed the activities of tiger exhibitor Joseph Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage.
Better known as “Joe Exotic,” Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage is now serving a 22-year prison sentence for trying to hire the murder of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.
(See “Joe Exotic” gets 22 years in a cage for murder plot.)
Lowes found in contempt
The Tiger King Netflix series also exposed in depth the operations of other tiger exhibitors including Kevin Antle, Tim Stark, and Jeff and Lauren Lowe.
The Antle and Stark histories may be familiar to ANIMALS 24-7 readers.
(See Kevin “Doc” Antle’s secret life on the lam from Iowa and Tim Stark: 120-count conviction, yet roadside zoo remains open.)
The Lowes, who purchased many of the tigers formerly kept by “Joe Exotic,” on May 20, 2021 surrendered “68 protected lions, tigers, lion-tiger hybrids, and a jaguar” to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service [USDA-APHIS].
“The Lowes received citations for failing to provide the animals with adequate or timely veterinary care, appropriate nutrition, and shelter that protects them from inclement weather and is of sufficient size to allow them to engage in normal behavior,” recounted a USDA-APHIS media release.
“The Lowes were recently found in contempt after months of noncompliance with court orders requiring the Lowes, in part, to employ a qualified veterinarian and establish and maintain a program of veterinary care that meets the requirements of the [U.S. federal] Animal Welfare Act,” the USDA-APHIS media release continued, adding that “The U.S. alleges that these violations to Endangered Species Act-protected animals also constitute violations of the Endangered Species Act.”
Like “Joe Exotic,” the Lowes have for several years been under legal surveillance from Big Cat Rescue, whose mission includes pursuing criminal charges against facilities that breed exotic cats, allow cub-petting, and/or keep animals under substandard conditions, all in frequent violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
Also like “Joe Exotic,” the Lowes have been targets of investigation by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK].
Among the 1,400-plus videos posted to YouTube by SHARK is one in which Lauren Lowe displayed a handgun beneath a SHARK drone which had just documented the squalid animal care and housing that led to the USDA-APHIS impoundment of the animals.
On top of their other issues, Jeff Lowe was on June 5, 2021 reportedly charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and changing lanes improperly, while Lauren Lowe was charged only with driving under the influence.
Allegedly drunk Lowes switched seats
According to Hicham Raache of KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, “An officer saw a white Range Rover – bearing a specialized Oklahoma license plate with ‘TGRK1NG’ on it – jump a curb while leaving a parking lot at high speed. The Range Rover stopped as the officer approached.
“A woman later identified as Lauren Lowe, 30, opened the driver side door, leaned out and yelled for help in ‘a slurred speech,’ the police report states. The front seat passenger – later identified as Jeff Lowe – and a backseat passenger then exited the Range Rover.
“Jeff Lowe, 56, walked around the back of the vehicle and entered the driver’s seat as the officer activated his squad car’s overhead lights,” Raache continued.
Jeff Lowe, apprehended in another parking lot after making a lane change without signaling, according to the arrest report, flunked a series of sobriety tests.
“Information was not provided on whether a breath test was administered on Lauren Lowe,” Raache reported.
“Where can I play with tiger cubs in Texas?”
The most significant news in the long run on the roadside zoo and quasi-“sanctuary” front, however, may be that USDA-APHIS inspector Cynthia Digesualdo, DVM, on April 21, 2021 cited the Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary, north of Tyler, Texas, for multiple Animal Welfare Act violations, including in connection with the deaths of 11 big cats since January 2018
A Google search for “Where can I play with tiger cubs in Texas” brings up first, “Welcome to Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary,” a facility existing years before “Joe Exotic” and Jeff Lowe, among others, became involved in the cub-petting business.
While cub-petting was a staple of traveling exotic animal shows and roadside zoos for generations before the Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary existed, Tiger Creek was among the first of hundreds to promote cub-petting, and even tiger breeding, as activities of a “sanctuary.”
Neither cub-petting nor breeding, under any pretext, are allowed under the rules of The Association of Sanctuaries, American Sanctuary Association, and Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary founder Brian Werner, also occasionally identified as Brian Werner-Ferris, has told media that he became interested in tigers while serving in the U.S. Navy.
Werner upon discharge from the Navy reportedly became a housepainter in northern Ohio.
At some point thereafter, Werner acquired three tigers and became acquainted with Lorenza Pearson (1948-2012).
Pearson, a former traveling show performer, owned the L&L Exotic Animal Farm in Copley Township, Ohio, opened in 1979. The farm reportedly kept more than 60 big cats, black bears, alligators, and snakes at peak.
In 1983 a Bengal tiger killed Pearson’s two-year-old son. In 1998 another animal mauled his two-year-old grandson.
Federal inspector mauled
In 2006, the Akron Beacon Journal reported, one of Pearson’s white tigers “reached out with a paw and managed to put a USDA-APHIS inspector’s arm in his mouth before she was freed.”
The USDA-APHIS inspector was there to check on Pearson’s progress toward rectifying 47 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, for which Pearson was cited in 2002.
This followed a series of local health department citations for alleged improper disposal of animal waste and the butchered carcasses of hoofed species used to feed the large carnivores.
A lawsuit filed by Copley Township over the persistent sanitation issues finally closed the L&L Exotic Animal Farm in 2008, after seven years of litigation.
Werner moved to Texas
Meanwhile in Texas, George W. Bush, who was Texas governor from 1995 to 2000 before becoming U.S. president from 2001 to 2009, repeatedly stalled proposed state legislation to restrict canned hunts and exotic pet trafficking, and blocked Endangered Species Act enforcement.
All of that made Texas an attractive destination for exotic animal owners, including Werner, who left one of his tigers with Pearson and relocated to Houston in 1997.
Werner by May 1997 was reportedly assembling a registry of tigers in private hands, called the Tiger Missing Link Foundation, and raising funds to establish a facility to breed privately owned tigers in the name of conservation.
The registry, Werner claimed, already included about 2,000 of the 7,000 tigers he estimated were privately owned in the U.S. at the time.
This number, in somewhat mutated form, may be the source of the oft-recited claim by animal advocacy organizations and mass media that there are more captive tigers in Texas alone than remain in the wild.
The numbers game
That claim has, however, been vehemently disputed by Lynn Culver of the Feline Conservation Federation, an association of private owners of tigers and other exotic cats.
Culver reported in September 2011 that her research had discovered only 312 tigers in Texas, at 47 locations, including 107 tigers at facilities claiming to be sanctuaries and 13 facilities identified as zoos.
The difference between the high guesstimates and Culver’s count might be reconciled by taking into account the numbers of tiger cubs born at petting facilities who disappear from public records after becoming too big for such use.
What becomes of many of those cubs came to light after the December 2002 arrest of the apparent original kingpin of tiger petting facilities, John Weinhart (1942-2015), who for about 30 years operated a facility called Tiger Rescue at sites in Glen Avon and Colton, California.
Fifty-four live tigers, 30 dead adult tigers, and 58 dead tiger cubs were in December 2002 found at the Tiger Rescue premises.
Weinhart was in February 2005 convicted of multiple related felonies.
Tiger Missing Link morphed into Tiger Creek
The Tiger Missing Link registry eventually faded from view. Werner instead focused on establishing first the Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary, initially called the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, and later a Tiger Creek Safari Resort which has yet to be built.
The Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary survived an early mishap when volunteer Holly White, 19, of Tyler, was in April 1999 severely injured by one of the resident tigers. Werner contended that White broke the refuge rules by trying to pet the tiger.
Werner next formed an entity called Great Cats in Crisis. Members, besides Tiger Creek, included Cougar Valley Farms, in Idaville, Indiana; Noah’s Wildlife Shelter in Rathdrum, Idaho; Tiger Touch, east of Reno, Nevada; the Newarc Center, of Davidson, Maryland; and Guardians of the Great Cats, of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Most had not recently filed IRS Form 990, which all charities must file if they have revenues, assets, or transactions exceeding $25,000 in a year.
Guardians of the Great Cats founder Joe Parker was a longtime bingo operator whose games were repeatedly halted by law enforcement.
In 1986-1987 Parker allegedly skimmed $50,000 in proceeds from bingo games held to benefit a nursery school and kindergarten. Parker testified against other defendants to win a reduced sentence.
The investigation was part of “Operation Rocky Top,” a probe that led to the 1989 suicides of Tennessee state representative Ted Ray Miller and Tennessee secretary of state Gentry Crowell.
Parker and his ex-wife Mary Lynn Roberts in 1991 started the Tiger Haven sanctuary in Kingston, Tennessee, just west of Knoxville. Parker ran a bingo hall to help fund Tiger Haven, 1994-1996, and was the public voice of Tiger Haven until he and Roberts split in August 2000.
Marjan the Kabul Zoo lion
Two hyperbolic direct mail appeals distributed by Great Cats in Crisis in early 2002 purported to be raising funds on behalf of Marjan, a lion who survived 22 years of deprivation and strife at the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, losing his mate and vision to a hand grenade attack in 1993.
Marjan died in his sleep on January 26, 2002, five days after help finally arrived with World Society for the Protection of Animals international projects director John Walsh, shortly followed by specialists from the American Zoo Association and European Zoo Association.
The relief mission was organized and funded through the efforts of then-North Carolina Zoo director David Jones, who headed the North Carolina Zoo for 20 years after 25 years as chief executive of the London Zoo in London, England.
“Had no useful role to play in Kabul”
Jones had the funding and most of other arrangements in place for the Kabul Zoo rescue by Thanksgiving 2001, Jones told ANIMALS 24-7, when “Werner contacted me to tell me that he had raised $2,000-plus” to help.
Unfortunately, Jones said, “the only thing he wanted to do with the money, plus whatever else he could raise, was to support his own trip to Kabul. I made very clear to him,” Jones said, “that he had no useful role to play in Kabul and that we would choose the people to send who had the best skills available. We then endured two weeks of pressure from him and even a Member of Congress [apparently Ralph Hall, D-Texas] insisting that Werner was the best qualified person to do the work. He never had any intention of cooperating with any international combined effort,” opined Jones.
Marjan was dead before appeals reached recipients
Werner meanwhile milked news media for publicity about his hypothetical rescue effort, and hit donors all over the U.S. with the two appeals soliciting funds to help Marjan––who was already deceased before either appeal reached recipients,
“If Werner et al ever sent any money to the Kabul Zoo,” Jones emailed on March 19, 2002, “there is no sign of it through our contacts.”
Confirmed John Walsh on March 21, 2002, “I know nothing about Brian Werner’s activities. I am not aware of him or any of his people going to Kabul.”
Jones and the team he assembled remained involved in rebuilding the Kabul Zoo and providing care to the resident animals and other animals in Afghanistan for many years thereafter.
Of Great Cats In Crisis, the Internal Revenue Service contractor Guidestar.org says, “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for three consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.”
$4.8 million in assets but cited for lack of vet care
Werner has also reportedly done business as Tigerlink and as the National Foundation for Rescued Animals.
Since 2012, according to IRS Form 990 filings, the Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary has raised at least $3.2 to $3.6 million per year, mostly through direct mail appeals. Gate receipts account for about $230,000 per year. Werner has collected $130,000 to $135,000 in annual salary.
Total Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary declared assets, as of 2019, exceeded $4.8 million.
Despite cash flow at a level that would suggest the ability to hire a full-time on-site veterinarian, and a number of animals that would suggest the need for one, USDA-APHIS inspector Cynthia Digesualdo, DVM, found that “Accurate and timely communication with a veterinarian does not appear to have occurred” for at least 11 dead tigers.
Amir, Greg, & Juda
A January 2018 USDA-APHIS veterinary check, Digesualdo wrote, noted that a nine-year-old tiger named Amir “needed a slight increase in weight, with a dental check in the future. On May 9, 2018, daily records indicated he did not eat his complete diet for the day.”
Amir ate less and less thereafter, until “On June 19th he was found dead in his yard. At no time between May 9th and June 19th was it noted that a veterinarian examined this animal.”
Greg, another nine-year-old tiger, “According to facility records, was noted to have a distended abdomen on September 18, 2018,” Digesualdo continued, and “was not eating his complete diet for several weeks” before that.
Yet records show, Digesualdo testified, no indication that Greg received veterinary care during this time before he “was finally euthanized on October 2, 2018.”
Juda, an 18-year-old male lion, “During the January 2018 USDA veterinary check, was noted to be thin, to have muscle atrophy in his rear legs, and was wobbly,” Digesualdo reported. “The next note in Juda’s record indicates he was euthanized on July 15, 2018. There are no notes or documents indicating a veterinarian examined this animal between January 2018 and July 2018.”
Kumari, Kenya, & Sarge
Continued Digesualdo, “The only records available for Kumari,” a 12-year-old female tiger, “were from September 7, 2019 forward. Starting on that date until the day she died, she was not eating her complete diet. On September 19, 2019 records indicated she was observed eating dirt. On September 24, 2019 she underwent an ovariohysterectomy. She died the next day. There are no records indicating a veterinarian examined her before September 24.”
Kenya, a 21-year-old female lion, “was noted to be bloated on June 3, 2020 and breathing heavily on June 9, 2020. She was euthanized on June 17, 2020,” Digesualdo wrote. “There are no records indicating she was examined by a veterinarian prior to being euthanized.”
A blood sample was drawn from Sarge, an 18-year-old male tiger, on Mar 31, 2020. “He was having diarrhea in September and October,” Digesualdo noted, “then was euthanized on November 2, 2020. There is nothing indicating he was examined by a veterinarian between March 31, 2020 and the date of euthanasia.”
Scrunches, Sierra, & Tara
Scrunches, an 18-year-old female lion, “had an episode of vomiting and nausea in August 2018. No records were found indicating a veterinarian was contacted about this episode,” Digesualdo said. “On January 9, 2019 she was noted to be dragging herself around the enclosure. A veterinarian was consulted via phone call on January 17, 2019. However, the cat was not examined by the veterinarian until she was euthanized on Jan 23, 2019.
“On April 21, 2018,” Digesualdo continued, “records indicate Sierra,” a 20-year-old tiger, “looked dizzy. Over the next several months she had multiple episodes of stumbling, back end weakness, and collapsing.” Yet “there are no records indicating she was examined by a veterinarian between April 21 and August 18, 2018,” when Sierra was euthanized.
Tara, a 17-year-old female tiger, “was observed vomiting on February 17, 2020,” Digesualdo wrote, “but was not evaluated by a veterinarian until February 24, 2020, when she died under anesthesia.
“Showed clinical signs for weeks, sometimes months”
Coco, a 15-year-old male puma, “was noticed to be lame in March 2018. He was euthanized on June 8, 2018,” Digesualdo recounted. “There are no records indicating he was examined by a veterinarian between March and June 2018.”
Finally, Dakari, a serval of unknown age, “According to the attending veterinarian, was treated by the facility for a week prior to [Tiger Creek] seeking medical care with the veterinarian. The animal ultimately died.
“All of the above animals showed clinical signs for weeks, sometimes months, without being examined by a veterinarian,” Digesualdo concluded. “All animals, especially geriatric animals, must be monitored daily by a qualified individual and a mechanism of direct and frequent communication with the veterinarian needs to be established.”
Additional alleged violations
The lack of veterinary care for the dead animals constituted what USDA-APHIS terms a “critical” violation. Each alleged offense could potentially be punished by an administrative law penalty of up to $10,000.
Non-critical violations cited by Digesualdo at the same time included a lack of acquisition records for two bobcats, a tiger a ringtailed lemur, two foxes, and three raccoons.
Digesualdo also issued Tiger Creek a citation for lack of “an appropriate plan for environment enhancement adequate to promote the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates.”
The noncritical violations were to be corrected by April 26 and May 1, 2021, respectively.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing to socials with gratitude and disgust, anger, and sorrow.
Annoula Wylderich says
As a Nevadan, I was happy to see some progress but was concerned with the watered-down version of the bill that finally passed. Once these venues are no longer profiting off the animals as before, the level of care will likely go down even more since it’s costly to maintain them. I suspect some might be sold off where they could experience even worse fates. The only reason these owners are keeping them is to make money; once that incentive disappears, the animals become a burden.
Incidentally, I believe that HSUS takes credit for working on the exotics bill rather than PETA; the latter organization was just announcing its passage.