Judge Gives Carole Baskin the Tiger King’s Zoo


For years, Carole Baskin railed against the roadside zoo that was run by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, describing it as cruel and exploitative of the big cats that were kept there.

That part of the story is well known to the millions of viewers of “Tiger King,” the Netflix series about the conflict between Ms. Baskin, an animal-rights activist, and Mr. Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, the flamboyant owner of a lion and tiger zoo in Wynnewood, Okla.

Tensions grew so taut between them that, in 2019, Mr. Maldonado-Passage was convicted of trying to have Ms. Baskin killed.

On Monday, a federal court judge in Oklahoma added another chapter to the tale when he ruled that Ms. Baskin’s organization, Big Cat Rescue Corporation, could take over the 16.4-acre property in Wynnewood, once known as G.W. Exotic.

Judge Scott L. Palk ordered that Greater Wynnewood Development Group, which owns the property, surrender the land.

“The G.W.D.G. shall vacate the premises of the zoo land within 120 days of the date of service of this order,” Judge Palk of the Western District of Oklahoma federal court ruled. “Vacation of premises shall also require removal of all zoo animals from the zoo land.”

The decision was the culmination of a seven-year battle that began when Ms. Baskin accused Mr. Maldonado-Passage of trademark infringement. In 2013, Mr. Maldonado-Passage was ordered to pay Ms. Baskin about $1 million after he used her organization’s name and logo to promote his own park.

Ms. Baskin sued G.W. Exotic in 2014, claiming its operators created a whole other entity, the Garold Wayne Zoo, in an attempt to get out of paying the judgment. When that entity became liable for the judgment, the park was transferred to Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which was created by Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s business partner at the time, Jeff Lowe.

The Netflix documentary showed the fracture of the relationship between Mr. Lowe and Mr. Maldonado-Passage, who tangled over control of the zoo and its animals.

On Monday, Judge Palk agreed that the property had been “fraudulently transferred” by Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s mother and others so that it would not be used to satisfy the judgment.

The fate of the animals, however, was not immediately clear.

Judge Palk did not make clear in his ruling if Big Cat Rescue Corporation would be able to keep the animals that remained on the property.

In a statement, the Humane Society of the United States urged that the animals be transferred to “proper sanctuaries so that they will never suffer again at the hands of unqualified hucksters like Jeff Lowe and Joe Exotic.”

Mr. Maldonado-Passage was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison, after his conviction on two counts of murder-for-hire and numerous charges related to the animals he kept. He has maintained his innocence and has appealed to a higher court.

He also has a Twitter account, which shares messages that proclaim his innocence and that advertise merchandise, like shirts bearing his likeness.

On Tuesday, a post on his account simultaneously responded to the judge’s ruling and expressed support for protesters who have demonstrated nationwide against police-involved shootings and killings.

“Carole Baskin taking my zoo is a tragedy,” the post said. “And we’ll get to that. But today is a day to stand in solidarity with those that have been hurt, killed, and worse because they’re standing up for what they believe in.”

Big Cat Rescue Corporation is a sanctuary for lions, tigers and other animals that have been abandoned by their previous owners. For years, Ms. Baskin accused Mr. Maldonado-Passage and other owners of roadside zoos of exploiting tigers by breeding cubs so that they could be held by tourists, among other abuses.

She has said “Tiger King” failed to show the extent of the abuse suffered by the animals and falsely portrayed her as an opportunist who also used the animals to enrich herself. She said the portrayal had led to death threats and hurt the stability of the organization “because of all of the people who hate us based on the lies they were told in the series.”

Ms. Baskin’s lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment on Judge Palk’s ruling. Lawyers for the Greater Wynnewood Development Group also did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Lowe did not immediately return a message for him at the animal park.

Big Cat Rescue Corporation posted on its website that the coronavirus pandemic and the Netflix series dealt the organization a “double punch” that threatened its ability to open to the public again.

“We don’t know if Big Cat Rescue will ever be able to open for tours again,” the post stated. “We have lost one-third of our income and have had to let go of 10 of our 20 staff and contractors.”

Judge Palk’s decision was cheered by animal-rights activists who have described Ms. Baskin as a champion of big cats.

“The judge’s decision finally brings down the curtain on the cruel operation known as G.W. Exotic,” said Kitty Block, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “It is justice for Carole Baskin and accredited sanctuaries that put animal welfare first.”



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