A federal grand jury has indicted a former zookeeper from Oklahoma of killing five tigers to make room for new arrivals, but the whole story is a lot more twisted.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic”, owned and operated his own animal park in Wynnewood until he was arrested and charged with two counts of hiring a person to commit murder. His alleged target was Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit organization trying to educate the public about Maldonado-Passage’s unethical practices. According to a statement by the group, Maldonado-Passage had responded to their attempts by changing the name of his traveling exhibit to Big Cat Rescue Entertainment, apparently seeking to make his business sound reputable through fraudulent association.
After Big Cat Rescue won a $1 million copyright infringement lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage, the disgraced zookeeper lashed out in the form of numerous online threats. In one post, he shared a video of himself shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like Baskin in the head, in front of a banner with the organization’s logo.
Per details shared in a statement by the US Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Oklahoma, Maldonado-Passage escalated his vendetta from symbolic harm to planning literal harm in July 2016. He allegedly repeatedly asked an unnamed person to help him find someone to murder an unidentified woman. This person put Maldonado-Passage in contact with an undercover FBI agent, whom he finally met up with in December 2017 to arrange the hit. The indictment also accuses Maldonado-Passage of hiring a separate person to do the deed.
Based on evidence gathered in a joint investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and the FBI, the agency alleges that Maldonado-Passage gave this individual $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to Florida to carry out the murder, and that he agreed to pay several thousand more once it was complete.
Maldonado-Passage was arrested on September 7, 2018. If he is found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison for each count of murder-for-hire.
As reported by KOCO News 5, the new charges were filed after the investigation team, gathering additional evidence for the upcoming trial, discovered bones from five adult tigers buried on the grounds of Maldonado-Passage’s now-defunct Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. An analysis revealed the tigers were shot.
In light of these findings and other evidence unearthed by officials, Maldonado-Passage has now been indicted on 19 counts of wildlife-related crimes. Many of these counts are violations of the Endangered Species Act, stemming from both the alleged tiger killings and from allegedly selling and planning to sell tiger and lion cubs. The rest are violations of the Lacey Act, a law that prohibits falsifying records of animal sales. According to a new Department of Justice statement, Maldonado-Passage falsified documents for sales of multiple big cats and a baby lemur.
Soon after the formal charge came through this week, Maldonado-Passage himself called the KOCO newsroom from jail and admitted to shooting the tigers, but claimed he did so for humane reasons.
"I put five tigers to sleep because they were in pain," he told reporters. "They were in pain. They had toenails coming out of their ankles. They had no teeth. They had exposed root canals."
"I thought it was more humane and more faster than 20 minutes of seizures. I have to shoot a horse or a cow every day that somebody brings me. Obviously, it's hard."