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Fulton County Zoo named in indictment of Tiger King’s Joe Exotic has their own resume of violations

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Smithfield, IL (HOI) - It's been three months since Netflix released the Tiger King series, breaking the record for the most watched show on the streaming service. The docuseries is showcasing the life of an Oklahoma man running a zoo in his own backyard.

But that zoo has a connection to the Heart of Illinois, Joe Exotic illegally sold animals to a small Zoo in Fulton County. While investigating Brown's Oakridge Zoo, Jenise Rebholz learned they have their own resume of complaints and citations, showing what life is really like for animals at roadside zoos.

At the center of Tiger King is Joe Exotic, whose legal name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage. He's spent the last 20 years breeding big cats, and will spend the next 22 in prison.

Named in four of his charges, Brown's Oakridge Zoo in Smithfield, Illinois, a small village in Fulton County.

The 8-episode series pays large attention to Joe's plot to kill his rival Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Florida, but those acts were just four charges that would send Joe to prison. The other 17 charges were all animal welfare violations.

Animal advocates say the series missed the mark on animal cruelty.

"I think the message is lost," said Debbie Metzler with PETA.

"Tiger King failed miserably to cover the issues on cub petting and animal welfare in the series," said Debbie Leahy with the Humane Society of the United States.

Counts 9 through 11 against Joe Exotic are for violations of the Endangered Species Act, two of which were for selling tiger cubs to Brown's Oakridge Zoo in 2016 and 2018.

This federal law makes it illegal to sell, buy, or transport any endangered or threatened species, like tigers.

"He alluded to in Tiger King that a tiger can go for $2,000... so that motivates these breeders to churn out these cubs where they use them in lucrative photos ops", said Metzler.

But in order to make these animals sales, Joe Exotic had to lie.

In counts 12 through 20 of the indictment, Joe was found guilty of falsifying documents to make it look like young cubs were donated, not sold.

That was the case for those two listed cubs sold to Brown's, but PETA reports the Fulton County zoo has gotten other animals from Joe as well.

Despite being named in the indictment four times, an official with the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma tells us neither Ivan nor Nancy Brown, the owner's of Brown's Zoo, testified in the trial.

The animal welfare violations go far beyond Joe Exotic's indictment, since 2002, Brown's has been cited more than 50 times by the Department of Agriculture.

"At Brown's Oakridge Zoo they were fined for not even notifying a vet to a wolf that was so skinny that his bones were visibly protruding," said Metzler.

"They were fined $3,500 dollars a few years ago for failure to provide veterinary care to a kangaroo with a broken leg that subsequently died.

In 2017 they were cited for critical violation for failure to provide veterinary care to a tiger that was sick for several days and was found dead… and just a couple months ago they were cited for violation after a lemur bit a patron on a hand after a close encounter," said Leahy.

Humane Society of the United States

But animal groups say the USDA doesn't do enough to stop violators, which leads to further cruelty as these facilities rarely get shut down.

"The USDA has really poor enforcement records, so they don't always enforce the animal welfare act violations that are apparent," said Metzler.

"It's very rare that the USDA does anything other than cite a facility," said Leahy.

The USDA declined an interview, but answered questions via email instead. A representative told me that while the department does issue fines and cease and desist orders, if an exhibitor loses their license for violations, they still can keep their animals.

After the reported lemur bite at Brown's, the owners told the USDA that 'George' the lemur would no longer be included in the animal encounters. However, it's those private encounters that animal groups shame the most, saying cub petting practices are a money grab for owners and traumatizing for tigers.

"The first few months [cubs] are completely dependent on their mothers. Exhibitors who breed them and use them in cub petting ventures disregard that need entirely," said Metzler.

At Brown's $20 would get a picture with a cub, but not anymore.

The owner's say after fallout from the Netflix series, they're closing the zoo. They say they've even received death threats.

Nancy Brown and family denied a formal interview, but they defended Joe Exotic and their zoo, saying they love the animals like their own children.

It's unclear if and when their animals will leave Fulton County.

The owner's of Brown's Oakridge Zoo are not facing federal charges for their purchase of endangered species from Joe Exotic.

Jenise Rebholz

Evening Anchor, Heart of Illinois ABC

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