Posts Tagged ‘Joe Exotic’

Big Cat Wars


I was not surprised when I heard the news that “Joe Exotic” had been indicted for hiring a hit man to take out a “Jane Doe.”  I figured the “Jane Doe” would have to be none other than Carole Baskin, Joe Exotic’s bête noire.  This, I suppose, is the end of their long-standing feud. Joe Exotic is probably going away for a while, and he won’t be posting ranting Youtube videos. He also won’t be posting his professional wrestling videos either, and we won’t be seeing his country music videos either.

Yeah, Joe Exotic is a kind of renaissance man among psychos. When I first heard of him, he was known as Joseph Schreibvogel, and he was running a roadside zoo in Oklahoma. CNN, I believe, brought him on to discuss the Amur tiger that escaped its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo back in 2007. I thought he was an interesting figure with his bleached-blond mullet and eye shadow, but then I found his Youtube channel.  It was quite an experience!

Now, I had known about Carole Baskin for a long time. Back in the Dark Ages, when I was a political science graduate student and Google had its own video streaming service that definitely was not Youtube,  I spent several evenings watching Big Cat Rescue’s videos about different cat species, which often featured an animal that was said to have been rescued from dire straits.

If two personalities were ever going to conflict when it came to the issues related to exotic cat ownership, it would be these two. Baskin is the heiress of a Tampa real estate magnate, and she initially got her start as an exotic cat breeder. She has since changed her mind and now actively campaigns to ban exotic cat ownership.

Schreibvogel, though, saw himself as renegade, who was going to fight like hell to hold onto his big cats and to defend the institution of the roadside zoo. This institution was legion throughout the country, especially in the flyover states, where little boys and girls first laid eyes upon their first tigers and monkeys. When I was a boy, one of my favorite places to visit was a roadside zoo near Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the owners kept several tigers and monkeys. I had seen tigers at “real zoos” before, but I sort of liked the idea that I didn’t have to go to Pittsburgh or Columbus to see a tiger up close.

So here we have two egos that were very likely to clash and class badly. Both believed they had the best interest of the cats at heart, but their interests were in total conflict.

I can see a lot of good reasoning on Baskin’s logic. When I was in high school, there was a lioness kept in a cage in an adjacent county, and it was common for people to make special detours to see the cat in her cage. Then, the floodwaters grew too close to her enclosure, and the authorities killed her to spare her from drowning.

Her life was spent in a prison, and it ended so ignobly for a creature thought of as royalty among beasts.

I am also sure that many big cats live lives that are totally horrific and inappropriate for their species. Baskin’s logic is simple. Big cats should not be in private hands, except in established sanctuaries or accredited zoological institution. Some people of this school of thought even oppose the zoos, because there are no realistic attempts to reintroduce endangered big cats to the wild.

But at the same time, I can see where this logic would become problematic. I, after all, own an exotic snake, a constrictor at that, and I’ve seen some groups push for the banning of all captive constrictors, even though it would be hard to make the case that a ball python would ever be a danger to a person.

And so we fall into one of those debates between personal freedom and animal rights/animal welfare issues. It is one of those debates that becomes instantly polarizing, and in my weird position, I can see the merits of both arguments.

The best expositor of allowing for a little more liberality in exotic ownership comes from the zoologist John Burchard, who wrote the following at Querencia. 

I firmly support the right to keep “exotics” in captivity and/or partial or complete liberty (our wolf lived free in the desert on weekends, and our coatis mostly lived free in our very normal residential neighborhood, for example). Much of my professional life has been devoted to the study of animal behavior (and its relevance to human behavior). One of my principal mentors in that work was the famous Austrian zoologist Konrad Z. Lorenz (best known to Americans perhaps for his charming books King Solomon’s Ring and Man meets Dog).

I worked with Konrad in his Institute in Germany for seven years, during which time he shared a Nobel Prize for his work. None of that work would have been possible at all without being able to keep all sorts of “exotic” creatures under quasi-natural conditions and often at partial or complete liberty.

My own entry into that field would also have been impossible without similar childhood experiences – some of them, even then, probably already illegal under U.S. law. As a schoolboy I had all sorts of free flying, tame (because hand-reared) wild birds flying around outside our house. (Read King Solomon’s Ring to get an idea of what is possible, and indeed necessary, in that direction). My own childhood, thanks to exceptionally tolerant parents, was somewhat similar, though my most special interest was snakes. I gave my first public lecture – on snakes, of course – to the Rotary Club of Newport, VT – at the age of 7– 73 years ago next month. One of the snakes escaped, and slithered under the piano, during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the end. Highest marks for patriotic heroism of the lady piano player, who persevered wide-eyed but without a quiver while I rounded up the wayward reptile.

Watching animals on TV is not an adequate substitute for actually living with them. We now have wonderful, amazing natural history shows on TV. They are almost too good. And they are not the same as lying in a very small tent beside a remote Swedish lake, watching a moose pass within three feet of our noses on his way down to the lake to eat water plants. It’s not the same as walking through the forest with a tame Goshawk on your glove, learning (by watching the bird) how it constructs its world by remembering successes (a rabbit from *this* branch, at 4:17 pm) and failures (an empty field *here*, at 3:22 pm). You learn to see the world as they do.

Without that, you understand nothing.

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that Joe Exotic was engaging in the scholarship of John Burchard or Konrad Lorenz.  He made claims that he was submitting DNA to various studies, but I haven’t seen evidence of these studies, largely because I haven’t looked. He also defended breeding ligers and multi-generational lion-tiger crosses because they had hybrid vigor, and that they may have. However,  it is difficult to see what hybridization would do for the conservation of either species.

For Joe Exotic, keeping tigers was almost an exercise in becoming something more than he was. By his own accounts, he had a rather rough life as a young man. Growing up gay in Oklahoma 40 odd years ago must have been a horror of a life. He did drugs, and he lived an unmoored life.  When his brother died, he worked with his parents build the park, and in building that park, he found meaning.

The park was opened in 1999, and that was pretty much within the last two or three years that roadside zoos could operate without much public scrutiny.

So here, you have a man who lived a pretty troubled existence finding meaning in something and then suddenly finding himself in the storm of controversy. Lots of complaints about the park were circulated. Many investigations.

For whatever reason, Joe Exotic thought it was a good idea to set up a traveling display of big cats and call his show “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.” That led to the lawsuit by Carole Baskin’s organization, which is called “Big Cat Rescue.”  And there was a $1 million judgment against him for this infringement.

And that’s when things went really sideways. In 2016, Joe Exotic ran for president as an independent. He lost, in case you didn’t notice.  His husband was killed last year by an accidental gunshot.

And then he ran for governor of Oklahoma as a Libertarian, and he came in a distant third.

And while he was between elections, he apparently decided to spend $3,000 on a hit man to take out a Jane Doe in Florida. (I didn’t know hit men were so inexpensive!)

We don’t know that Carole Baskin was his intended target, but she claims that she was. It makes sense. Joe Exotic has done nothing but make threats against her for past few years, and at some point, he just lost whatever good sense he might have had.

If Joe Exotic is found guilty, which seems awfully likely, then this part of the big cat war will be over.

The debates that fired the passions of the two individuals involved, though, still rage on.  Are we willing to let a lion die in a pen along a West Virginia creek bed? Or are we more willing to take away a troubled man’s sense of purpose and meaning? Maybe it is better that children learn to leave the wild things in the wild, or maybe the exotic pet industry has a great value in keeping us alienated primates passionate about the other creatures on the planet.

I am struck by the need for nuance, a nuance I wish could have led to a better understanding before this tragedy hit.

We can all be passionate about our love for animals, but this story is an allegory for how it’s all going down. We have two sides that cannot compromise. Neither side sees the other as a human worthy of love and understanding, despite disagreement.

And the mania of the passions pushes us further apart, which leads to a man dehumanizing his opponent so much that he offers death threats in online videos and then goes full-out and hires a hit man.

At what point does that outrage and mania just consume a man?

For Joe Exotic was truly consumed, and it has ended with this indictment for something this heinous.








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