“You know why animals die in cages? Their soul dies.”
That was Joe Exotic, aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the so-called Tiger King, in a phone call from prison in Fort Worth, Texas, as presented in the seven-part Netflix documentary about him and his exotic animal zoo: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
Back in early 2020, the wild documentary was a distraction for a nation new to quarantine as millions watched the drama unfold between Joe Exotic and “Hey all you cool cats and kittens” Carole Baskin. If you watched, you know how it ended. Maldonado-Passage is currently serving a 22-year sentence for conspiring to kill Baskin, his competitor and owner of wildlife sanctuary Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, in a murder-for-hire plot. He was also convicted of violating several federal wildlife laws for mistreating exotic animals.
For the most part, the country has moved on to whatever the next popular pandemic pastime of the moment is, but the characters in the documentary were real, and even though the show’s splashy headlines have subsided, those connected to the world of Tiger King and controversial roadside zoos are still feeling the legal reverberations.
One of those caught up in the Tiger King mayhem was Keith Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park here in Winchester. You didn’t see Wilson on Tiger King, but there’s a tangled web to unweave that connects him to another larger-than-life character from the Netflix show: Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, owner of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina.
Wilson and Antle recently made local headlines of their own when their respective roadside zoos were raided and they were charged with exotic animal trafficking across state lines and other felonies.
Northern Virginia’s Own Tiger King
Wilson’s Wild Animal Park near Winchester was operated by Wilson beginning in 1997 right up until August 15, 2019. That was the day federal agents representing Virginia’s Animal Law Unit closed the operation down on charges of animal abuse and confiscated 119 of his animals at the property: lions, tigers, bears, camels, water buffalo, and more.
The Virginia Animal Law Unit took custody of the animals, which are now being cared for by animal control agencies and exotic and agricultural animal rescue partners, according to a press release by the Virginia attorney general’s office.
At the 12-hour hearing about the raid on August 29, 2019, with prosecution led by Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch, Wilson was found guilty of animal abuse and ordered by the judge to post a $300,000 bond and to allow inspections every 90 days for a year.
That case is currently on appeal.
But that was just the beginning of Wilson’s troubles.
Wilson and his nephew, Christian Dall’Acqua, were indicted a few months later on November 2, 2019, on 46 charges of animal cruelty by a Frederick County grand jury, according to court documents.
Wilson got even deeper in trouble after investigators began digging around in December 2019 and found out more about the relationship between Wilson and Antle.
Both men allegedly trafficked lion cubs between Virginia and South Carolina.
In October 2020, both Antle and Wilson were charged with misdemeanors and felonies: Wilson was charged with two felonies for interstate trafficking of lion cubs and 17 misdemeanors for treatment of the animals at his farm; Antle was charged with two felonies and 13 misdemeanors for essentially the same thing. Two of Antle’s daughters were also charged.
Wilson’s lawyer, Gilbert Ambler, says it’s all a misunderstanding that was made worse because of the Tiger King documentary. “Mr. Wilson’s livelihood and life were devoted to running a modest roadside animal park, originally started by his father,” Ambler wrote in an email response to questions from Northern Virginia Magazine. “While his case has been sensationalized by a connection to the drama that played out on Netflix’s Tiger King, the facts surrounding Mr. Wilson’s case show that he is an ordinary man, wholly disconnected from the larger-than-life characters of the show.”
The Realty of Roadside Zoos
Welcome to the world of exotic animal ownership. Tiger King showed an extreme picture of what life is like behind the high fences of wild animal parks, but across America, smaller roadside zoos dot the landscape.
These largely unregulated zoos are often run by owners with little or no training on how to properly raise and care for lions, tigers, bears, water buffalo, and other exotic animals.
The zoos, similar to Wilson’s, typically sit on acres of land and are opened under the idea that they’re providing a sanctuary for these large animals and giving the public an up-close look at them. This usually includes letting kids and adults pose and play with the animals, renting them out to parties, bringing in celebrities to endorse them—basically exposing these animals to things none of them would experience in the wild. But the animals can be hard to care for and maintain, still wild at heart, ready any minute to follow their natural instincts and make humans their prey.
The idea that the zoos are sanctuaries for big cats like tigers doesn’t hold up, says Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, an animal conservation group based in San Francisco that created the first international program aimed at reducing demand for endangered species. “There has never been a captured tiger released back into the wild,” Knights says. “You simply can’t reintroduce an animal with complex, solitary behavior. It will die in five minutes if it’s raised in captivity and released into the wild. So the conservation argument is nonexistent for a tiger,” he says.
These sort of zoos “should be obsolete,” he says. When you have a tiger cub for example, he says, they grow up, and then what do you do with them? “They are hugely expensive to maintain. And they are useless from the entertainment value point of view. You use them up and wear them out, and that is where the abuse occurs, I believe.”
Margaret Foster Riley, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the director of the school’s Animal Law Program, says that she sees no educational value to these zoos. “It’s not like they do anything like what a certified zoo does in terms of education. The notion that they are doing a service and maintaining species, to me, is really a pretextual notion rather than an actual reason they are doing it,” she says. “You are not doing a service by telling the public [to] come and play with these tiger cubs. That makes people think that a tiger cub is the same as a cat. It’s not. It’s a wild animal.”
There is also a darker side to this business. The Tiger King murder-for-hire case is an extreme example. But court records spell out other troubles: charges of shoddy record-keeping about the purchases or sales of the animals; rickety, dangerous enclosures that hurt the animals and put the public at risk; none of the required visits from special vets who know how to treat these exotic animals.
Virginia Leads The Way On Animal Protection
The commonwealth of Virginia has a unique mission to protect these animals. The Animal Law Unit is the nation’s first such unit, created by Attorney General Mark Herring in January 2015. The unit was started after the dogfighting ring in Virginia run by pro football player Michael Vick was broken up in 2007. The case made headlines at the time for the shocking cruelty—investigators in that case found that dogs were electrocuted, drowned and beaten—uncovered in the raid.
The Animal Law Unit is led by Welch, an avowed animal rights activist who has been recognized for her work on many animal abuse-related cases by the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute and has garnered awards from the Virginia Animal Control Association and Virginia Federation of Humane Societies. (Welch declined to comment for this article.)
She wrote in a November 1, 2009, law review article that Virginia has “taken the lead in the nation” with some of the strongest animal laws on the books.
Over the past few years, in part due to her work, some animal abuse laws in the state have been updated, expanded, and made more inclusive of protections for exotic animals.
One example is in Arlington County. The county has had local laws about the treatment of animals since 1935 (Chapter 2 of the Arlington County Code). But in September 2017, the county board added an amendment to the code prohibiting ownership of exotic animals as pets, such as bobcats, lynxes, monkeys, lemurs, leopards, panthers, tigers, lions, crocodiles, and alligators.
Then there is the involvement of the United States Department of Agriculture, which is charged with licensing and oversight of roadside zoo attractions.
The Federal Government and The Tiger King
In the Wilson case, the USDA is in the crosshairs on both sides. Is it doing its regulatory and oversight job on these roadside zoos as spelled out in the Animal Welfare Act, or not?
A group of 18 U.S. senators addressed the issue of apparent lax inspections and transparency within the department (after certain animal cruelty information was removed from the USDA website in 2017) in a letter to Acting Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Michael Young on February 13, 2017: “The public has a right to know if regulated entities have subjected animals in their care to abuse or otherwise failed to meet basic welfare standards,” the letter stated. “Scientific laboratories, circuses, aquariums, zoos, and other for-profit animal businesses will no longer feel the pressure to fully comply with the Animal Welfare Act now that their violations will no longer be publicly available.”
Another letter from 53 members of Congress on April 27, 2020, to new USDA Administrator Kevin Shea specifically mentioned the Netflix documentary: “Tiger King has drawn serious attention because of the outrageous and unethical behavior displayed by the owners of these facilities. Many of the exhibitors featured on this series continue to have their licenses renewed, despite numerous documented violations of federal law. We urge your agency to issue the final rule eliminating automatic license renewals and requiring licensees to demonstrate compliance before receiving a new license.”
On the other side, Oklahoma-based The Cavalry Group, which advocates for the rights of exotic animal farms and the people who run them, is raising money to help defend Wilson. (As of press time, the group had raised $20,000 for his defense fund.) The group’s website states that its president and co-founder, Mindy Patterson, spends her time “regularly advocating for and defending the constitutional and private property rights of law-abiding animal owners and animal-related businesses.”
The group was founded, according to its website, when it fought the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act in Missouri’s 2010 election.
According to statements about Wilson’s case on Cavalry’s website, the group says that the USDA is caught up in broader governmental injustices and that Wilson is “a victim of corruption and animal rights ideologues who have infiltrated into powerful government positions.”
Patterson reported that the USDA had given the Wilson zoo a “clean inspection” just a week before the animal farm was busted. Northern Virginia Magazine was unable to verify that the zoo was given a “clean inspection.”
At the initial hearing for Wilson’s case at Frederick County courthouse in August 2019, when Wilson’s attorney began talking about the USDA inspection reports, Patterson also reported the judge said that the testimony would not be allowed.
Wilson’s attorney is exploring a new defense as he prepares for trial and is seeking to portray his client’s case in a broader political framework. (Ambler advised his client to decline an interview for this article.) “Mr. Wilson is not being tried alone,” Ambler wrote in an email response to questions from Northern Virginia Magazine. “Many American ideals involving property rights, animal ownership, stewardship, and even freedom, are on trial in this case.”
Riley says that a response like this from a roadside zoo owner (or their lawyers) is pretty typical. “One thing you will see is that a lot of the language in discussions about private zoos is similar to language you will see for aficionados of the Second Amendment, for example,” she says. “They will talk about the rights to have these animals, and it’s very much about individual liberty.”
What’s Next For Wilson?
Asked if Wilson will reopen his zoo in the same location or maybe go to another state, Ambler wrote that his client is taking things one step at a time. “Before considering future careers, he needs to clear his good name.”
The Wilson/Dall’Acqua case is set to go to trial in the Frederick County Circuit Court on June 21-25, according to the state’s attorney general. Jury selection will begin soon.
These animal abuse cases are hard to prosecute, Welch says, because the prosecutor has to demonstrate real intent to hurt the animals. At the 2012 UVA Law Symposium, she said that it’s hard to get substantive jail time for intentional animal cruelty cases. “It’s hard for me to even get two months,” she said.
Seven animal abuse convictions by the Virginia attorney general’s office in 2017 bear this out: All seven were sentenced to jail time, but sentences were suspended under the condition that those convicted not work with animals for a period of time.
Congress has stepped up on behalf of exotic animals, working on legislation to clarify provisions in a previous law, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, with new legislation to include lions and tigers—the Big Cat Public Safety Act—which is now being reviewed in committee.
For now, Maldonado-Passage remains in prison—poetic justice for those who say he’s now in a cage just like the animals he once owned. In Virginia, Wilson’s Winchester zoo remains closed while he fights his legal battle. By this summer, he may also meet the same fate as his more famous counterpart, if his trial results in jail time.
Whatever the outcome, Tiger King shed light on an industry that attracts controversy, and the ongoing fallout from the show is likely to continue to shape the fate of the hundreds of exotic animals living in captivity in the United States.
Whether or not these types of zoos will be allowed to stay open remains to be seen, but Peter Knights of WildAid implores those who are interested in exotic animals to learn about them on the internet or on TV—not by patronizing a roadside zoo. “If you really love these animals, you should be working to protect them in the wild,” he says. “That’s where a happy future exists. Not in a cage in Virginia.”