‘Tiger King’ zoo reopens to big crowds, threatening big cats with coronavirus

We know tigers can get COVID-19 from humans. Now hundreds of people are petting them a day.

Published 9 May 2020, 08:25 BST
Oklahoma's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, formerly owned by Joe Exotic, has reopened to visitors and ...

Oklahoma's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, formerly owned by Joe Exotic, has reopened to visitors and resumed its "cub-petting" activities. The move comes after five tigers tested positive for COVID-19 in New York, raising concerns among experts that repeated handling by visitors puts cubs at heightened risk of contracting the virus.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

After a month’s hiatus, tiger cub petting at Joe Exotic’s former zoo is back—exposing cubs to not only the stress of hours of handling by humans, but also to the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which was closed for about a month because of the state’s pandemic restrictions, was featured in the hit Netflix series Tiger King. The facility has come under fire from animal welfare advocates and zoo professionals who say it exploits tigers from birth to death and fails to provide adequate food, enclosures, and veterinary care. Nonetheless, crowds turned out on the weekend of May 2nd to play with tiger cubs and visit the zoo’s menagerie of other wild animals.

“It was packed. Super busy,” says Daniela Toledo Vargas, who visited with her husband on Saturday afternoon—the day the park resumed cub petting. She’d watched Tiger King and decided to book one of the tiger-petting experiences, which were in high demand. For £48 per person, visitors can buy six minutes of private time with two baby tigers. “I got there at 2, and we had to wait until 6:20.” There were two baby tigers in a room, she says. One refused to engage with them, and the other got a bit fussy at one point. “[The keeper] told me they’d been doing it since 9 a.m.,” she says. “She told me it was the same tigers...the whole time.”

Cub petting is already rife with significant welfare problems, pandemic or no. National Geographic revealed in December that many of these private facilities speed-breed their tigers so there’s a constant supply of cubs. As soon as a litter is born, the cubs are removed from the mother, making her go into heat sooner so she can breed again. Cubs are economically useful only for a short time—between the ages of eight weeks and 12 weeks—because they quickly get too dangerous to interact with visitors. They may become breeders themselves, or go on exhibit—and there’s evidence that some are killed.

The zoo’s former owner, Joe Maldonado-Passage, known as Joe Exotic, is serving 22 years in prison for plotting to have a critic murdered, killing five tigers, and illegally selling tigers across state lines. The zoo is now owned by Jeff Lowe, a former business partner of Maldonado-Passage’s.

But now The Oklahoma zoo’s resumption of cub petting amid a pandemic raises new alarm bells for the big cats: Tigers are susceptible to COVID-19. In April, five tigers and four lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for the coronavirus. They are believed to have contracted it from an asymptomatic zoo worker. Now, at Greater Wynnewood, hundreds of people are petting cubs and feeding tigers every day, putting the animals at risk of exposure to the virus.

Tiger and "liger" cubs sit on grass at Myrtle Beach Safari in April 2019. The facility, also featured in Tiger King alongside Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, recently reopened to visitors as well. Visitors are often unaware of the breeding practices necessary to maintain a constant supply of cubs—or what happens to many captive tigers when they become too big to interact with the public and can’t be used for breeding or display as adults.

“In the best of circumstances, [cub petting] is a questionable, unsupportable practice,” says Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), an accrediting body that does not count Greater Wynnewood among its members. “Given what we know about the risk of COVID-19 transmission between humans and felines, I think it’s reckless.”

It’s unclear how many people came in contact with the baby tigers on Saturday. Park representatives did not respond to emails and messages for comment before publication; however, Lowe, the zoo’s owner, responded to National Geographic by email after the story published to say, “We aren’t doing cub encounters at this time.” He declined to provide further details.

Toledo Vargas says she saw several groups entering the enclosure during her visit, including a family with six kids that went in after she did. She says she also watched a larger, semi-private experience in which a keeper brought a cub around to a group of 25 people, who each petted it. The risk isn’t just to the tigers— public health experts warn that having multiple people in close proximity poses a risk for human to human virus transmission, and infection rates continue to climb in the U.S..

Toledo Vargas and several other visitors that had cub-petting experiences on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, told National Geographic that no special coronavirus-related protective measures were taken before they entered the cub enclosure. The staff she saw didn’t wear masks, nor did they ask visitors to wear gloves or masks.

“They didn’t take any precautions,” says Toledo Vargas. “They didn’t tell us anything about coronavirus.”

Unaccredited, roadside cub-petting facilities rarely have veterinarians on staff, Ashe says. Unlike at the AZA-accredited Bronx Zoo, where veterinarians took immediate action to test the big cats and keep them under close observation, Ashe says that if a cat were to contract the virus at a less reputable facility, “it would be unlikely that they would diagnose it, and I would question...even if they did notice it, what would they do about it.”

A call for emergency action

On April 29, in response to the reopening of another cub-petting facility featured in Tiger King, Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, the PETA Foundation filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, calling for a temporary ban on cub petting and direct contact with big cats during the pandemic.

Ashe says the AZA supports the petition. “You don’t normally see us aligned” with PETA, he says, “but extreme times make for strange bedfellows.”

The USDA has not responded to the petition, PETA spokesperson David Perle says.

The crowds at Greater Wynnewood over the weekend suggest that Tiger King’s viral popularity translated into actual visits, confirming animal experts’ concerns that the series would fuel demand for cub-petting experiences. Critics say the series glossed over the significant welfare issues in the roadside zoo cub-petting industry. “The salaciousness of the show and the lack of real attention to the abysmal care of animals…was a real disservice,” Ashe says. (Read more about key points that Tiger King overlooked.)

“I did watch Tiger King, and that’s why I went,” Toledo Vargas says. “But I did feel really, really bad for the tigers.” In addition to the cubs having to deal with constant visitors, she says the enclosures were much smaller than she expected after watching the show. Visitors could also pay £3.50 to feed bigger tigers, “and the food they would provide were animal crackers. And all you saw in the cages were animal crackers just…there. Like they didn’t want them anymore. So that also made me feel bad,” she says.

She says she was surprised at just how many animals were there, many housed four or five in a cage. “I was just kind of like, why do you need that many animals, you know?”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 7 and May 8 to provide more information about Greater Wynnewood Zoo, cub-petting, and comment from Jeff Lowe.
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