Colorado Sanctuary Home to 39 Tigers Once Owned By Tiger King's Joe Exotic: They're 'Happier'

The Wild Animal Sanctuary says the 39 tigers formerly owned by Joe Exotic came to the sanctuary malnourished, in distress and with extensive dental issues

By Kelli Bender | April 03, 2020 07:40 PM

While watching Netflix’s wildly-successful docu-series Tiger King, many may wonder, “What happened to all of Joe Exotic’s animals?”

The first season of the show concludes with the G.W. Zoo’s former owner, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who goes by the name Joe Exotic, in jail for a murder-for-hire plot and the zoo under the new ownership of Jeff Lowe, but little is said of the current state of the G.W. Zoo’s tigers.

Kent Drotar, the public relations director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, has some answers. Thirty-nine of the tigers and three black bears formerly under Joe Exotic’s care are now living in the expansive habitats of Keenesburg, Colorado sanctuary.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary as a non-profit consists of two properties: The Wild Animal Sanctuary itself — the 40-year-old, 789-acre home for wild animals rescued from neglectful and often illegal situations — and the Wild Animal Refuge, a close to 10,000-acre property in a remote part of southeastern Colorado acquired two years ago to provide even more space for the sanctuary’s rescues. The Wild Animal Sanctuary and the Wild Animal Refuge do not breed their animals and do not allow guests or keepers to have hands-on contact with the animals.

Between the two locations, the Wild Animal Sanctuary is currently caring for around 550 animals.

“We are almost the complete antithesis to what those other places do,” Drotar told PEOPLE, referring to the private zoos depicted in Tiger King. “We rescue and give permanent homes to animals that come from situations like that.”

According to Drotar, about 80% of the sanctuary’s residents, among them lions, jaguars, tigers, wolves, bears, ostriches and more, arrive there after being confiscated by a law enforcement agencies. Often this is by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which seize abused and/or illegally-owned wild animals and then place those animals in appropriate sanctuaries once the legal proceedings connected to the animal’s seizure are complete.

The other 20% are animals that are willfully surrendered by owners to the Wild Animal Sanctuary. Sometimes, owners moving to Colorado with exotic pets aren’t aware of the state’s strict exotic pet ownership laws, which are lax in many other states, and decide to surrender their pet once they realize it is illegal now. Other exotic pet owners realize they’ve made a mistake.

“Some people bought a lion cub out in Ohio at wildlife auction and they got him as a small cub for $425,” Drotar recalled about a lion resident. “About three years later, we got a call from them and they admitted that they made a mistake, and they complained that this lion had outgrown everything they had put him in, and asked if we could come and get him. We went and got this male lion from a tool shed.”

Joe Exotic’s 39 tigers and three bears came into the Wild Animal Sanctuary’s care through a mix of surrender and the threat of legal action said Drotar.

The tigers’ journey to the sanctuary started in 2016 in Dade City, Florida, at Dade City’s Wild Things Zoo, a private zoo that, like Joe Exotic’s former zoo, allowed guests to pay extra money to handle tiger cubs. The zoo also allowed guests to pay for the chance to swim with tiger cubs. People for the Ethical Treatment Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the tigers against the Florida zoo on the grounds that the zoo was mistreating endangered animals. As part of the legal proceedings that stemmed from this lawsuit, PETA’s legal team was granted access to the zoo to inspect the property.

“A couple of days prior to that Joe Exotic drove from Oklahoma down to Dade City, Florida, and removed 19 tigers at the behest of the owners of Dade City’s Wild Things,” Drotar said, adding he believes Joe Exotic agreed to move the tigers to his zoo in an effort to thwart law enforcement and because “Joe Exotic was notorious for breeding cubs and selling them to other organizations that used cubs, so there’s a good chance those 19 tigers originated at Joe’s zoo.”

Joe Exotic was deposed and a judge threatened to charge him with contempt of court for taking that big cats across state lines, according to Drotar. To avoid legal trouble, Joe Exotic agreed to give up the 19 tigers to the Wild Animal Sanctuary and chose to surrender 20 tigers and three black bears of his own a short time later. Drotar said that Joe Exotic’s decision to surrender the other animals came shortly after his husband Travis Maldonado died.

“He was kind of having a change of heart and was saying he wanted to get out of the business completely,” he added.

The 42 total animals have been at the Wild Animal Sanctuary for a little over two years and have noticeably changed during their time at the sanctuary.

According to Drotar, the tigers came in malnourished and weak, with lackluster coats and extensive dental issues. Additionally, many of the big cats were poorly declawed and had mobility issues as a result. The public relations director also said the animals appeared to have broken spirits as well.

“It’s kind of like the tigers were thinking, ‘Wow, my life is not worth living,'” he said.

Luckily, that anguish ended once the animals settled into their new home.

“The animals are just happier. They are no longer just pacing,” Drotar said of how the tigers have changed since arriving at the sanctuary. “It was almost an immediate change with their demeanor. They see other tigers. They see other animals. They see a horizon. They just have more of a purpose for living.”

Two years after arriving at the sanctuary, the tigers now have muscle mass and thick, luxurious coats with an impressive depth of color, and they have space. Joe Exotic, according to Drotar, kept many of his tigers in 12 ft. x 12 ft. cages at the 16-acre G. W. Zoo. At the Wild Animal Sanctuary, each tiger habitat, which contains about four-five tigers, is around 16 acres.

“There is no comparison on where these animals came from and where they are now,” he added.

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1946 County Road 53 Keenesburg, CO 80643

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