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Feds sue "Tiger King Park" owners over "inadequate" care of endangered animals

"48 Hours Suspicion": The Tiger King Mystery
"48 Hours Suspicion": The Tiger King Mystery 42:45

The Department of Justice on Thursday filed a civil complaint in the Eastern District of Oklahoma against Jeff and Lauren Lowe, the husband and wife team profiled in the popular docu-series "Tiger King," for operating an unlicensed exhibition park with endangered animals. 

The DOJ alleged in their lawsuit that after Jeff Lowe's USDA license was suspended for "inadequate" and "improper" care and handling of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act in August, he and his wife, Lauren, moved their now-unlicensed facility to evade federal oversight. 

For years, the Lowes operated the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, which was previously owned by Joseph Maldanado-Passage — also known as "Joe Exotic," the star of "Tiger King." But the USDA suspended Jeff Lowe's Animal Welfare Act exhibitor license in August after inspectors witnessed violations including malnutrition of animals, failure to ensure sanitary conditions, and improper maintenance to enclosures. 

Federal attorneys say that the Lowes have since evaded federal inspection of their new 33-acre parcel of land in rural Thackerville, Oklahoma, known as "Tiger King Park." "Tiger King Park" has been housing endangered animals without proper licensing, according to the DOJ. 

An aerial view of what investigators say is the new "Tiger King Park."  Handout / U.S. Attorney's Office

Federal investigators allege the roadside zoo run by the Lowes has potentially 100 to 200 animals on exhibit, including some protected by the Endangered Species Act, such as tigers, lions, a grizzly bear and ring-tailed lemurs.

"The government has no information about the facility's provisions for water supply or waste disposal at the facility," the DOJ said. "Upon information and belief, there is no municipal water or sewer service at the facility." 

When Jeff Lowe did have a license and was subject to inspections at the Wynnewood facility, "the Lowes compiled a record of inadequate and inhumane treatment of animals," investigators said. 

"The Lowes' animals have suffered from and continue to suffer from easily preventable or treatable conditions, which in some cases has caused the untimely death of animals," the complaint says. "Indeed, in the last two years, many animals have not been seen and/or treated by a veterinarian at all."

In one instance, inspectors said they saw a lion cub named Nala who was not provided proper care by the Lowes and ended up developing metabolic bone disease, a condition caused by a calcium-deficient diet that leads to weak bones. In March, the cub required surgery after ingesting a broken plastic toy that was left behind in her enclosure, and during the visit, the veterinarian hospital discovered she had whipworms, inspectors said. 

The USDA report said Nala was "lethargic, depressed, and thin and would not get up out of the mud from the sitting position even after prompting." The Lowes were ordered to get Nala immediate care by a veterinarian — but the government says they falsely claimed to have an appointment already scheduled. 

"Due to the Lowes' failure to provide adequate nutrition and care, Nala has suffered from painful and potentially life-threatening conditions," the complaint says. 

Two images of Nala provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office.  Handout / U.S. Attorney's Office

Since moving locations to Thackerville, court documents illustrate how the Lowes have been showcasing their animals at the new facility using the platform Cameo. Lauren Lowe has been seen with lions and tigers on the paid subscription site "OnlyFans," the DOJ said.

Lowe claimed in March 2018 to have "learned a lot about distracting, diverting attention, & using smoke and mirrors in the last few years," and has also said, "If we lose a lawsuit, we simply change the name and open another animal business someplace else, we all have multiple USDA licenses available," according to the complaint.  

"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," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Justice Department said in a statement. "Exhibitors cannot evade the law simply by shutting out the USDA and moving their animals elsewhere."

The government is asking the court to hand over certain animals to the United States, to allow immediate federal inspection of the Thackerville facility and to bar the Lowes from exhibiting their animals in person or online, among other requests. No attorneys are yet on file for the Lowes. 

The complaint comes nearly a year after the release of the Netflix docu-series, which propelled the story of big cat ownership into national popular culture. 

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