KEENESBURG, Colo. — Staff at The Wild Animal Sanctuary know all about a roadside zoo in Oklahoma where an eccentric guy named Joe Exotic kept dozens of tigers and other exotic animals. They were at the zoo in 2017 when they rescued some the animals and transported them to Colorado.
"It’s not about the Netflix film, it’s not about anything other than we are trying to give them the best life possible," said Becca Miceli, Chief Science and Animal Welfare Office.
Miceli joked that she has a fancy title as she explained her job consists of riding around on a 4-wheeler all day and taking care of animals. She said she was reluctant to watch the Netflix series 'Tiger King' but wanted to see how the show portrayed the captive wildlife crisis.
"It was difficult, I mean a lot of this stuff we saw for ourselves when we were there, the small enclosures, the indiscriminate breeding, the cub experiences, the exploitation, so all of that was very apparent when we were on the rescue," Miceli said.
The sanctuary has 39 tigers and three black bears from Joe Exotic's Greater Wynnewood Extoic Animal Park. Staff explain it took time for the animals to adjust to having more space in their new home.
"You know, try and provide them with as many freedoms that people unfortunately tried to take away from them," Miceli said.
Meet the tigers
Miceli introduced report to a rowdy and playful bunch of male tigers who are living together in a spacious enclosure. As she approached the fence, it was clear they know her and began making noises.
"What? You are so talkative," she said to the tigers as she called out their names.
Thomas, Clay, Daniel and Enzo all arrived at the sanctuary from Joe Exotic's zoo. Staff estimate they all would have been between 2 and 4 years old when they came to Colorado.
"We try and give them large open spaces, plenty of place to run, decide what they do throughout the day, if they want to lay in the sun, play in the water, scratch on a log," Miceli said.
Miceli said many of Joe Exotic's animals had health problems. She said some of them continue to have ongoing physical issues and mental trauma, adding that a few of the cats had been declawed by the previous owner.
"They did have some issues when we first got them, a lot of dental issues, things of that nature. Unfortunately, they did have some nutritional things that once they got on a better diet, had some things supplemented that they needed, some specific vitamins that big cats can lack," Miceli said.
Where did Jeff Lowe's cubs end up?
In addition to following the saga of Joe Exotic, "Tiger King" also focuses on a Las Vegas man named Jeff Lowe, who eventually purchased the Greater Wynnewood Extoic Animal Park. But before taking over the zoo, Lowe ran an illegal cub petting business in Las Vegas where he used un-permitted wild animal cubs as fodder for photo ops.
Lowe was later convicted for doing business without a license. But since authorities confiscated his exotic animals, they've been living at Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership, or REXANO, in Nevada.
REXANO is now home to 10 tigers. They also have African lionesses, cougars, a liger, bobcat, cerval and ocelot.
Staff hope the series will help raise awareness
Miceli said the Netflix show highlighted what many people in her line of work already know about the exploitation of exotic animals. She said one of the most disturbing parts of the documentary was when filmmakers alluded to the tigers being euthanized when owners determined they were deemed too old to get a profit from them.
"Those are all living beings to us and we want to see them flourish, that more than anything was the most troubling," Miceli said.
She hopes the series will inspire people to protect big cats and other exotic animals.
"I think hopefully it brings some light to the crisis that we’re in with large exotics in this nation. I hope that people don’t just take from the documentary the sensationalism of the characters, they actually look beyond it now and see the animals," Miceli said.
COVID-19 closures impact the sanctuary
Colorado's current stay-at-home order has forced the sanctuary to close its gates to visitors. Donations are still being accepted online.
"We sure hope that people come out and visit and still get to experience the sanctuary when that time comes and it’s safe for the nation," Miceli said.
When visitors are allowed once again, they can expect a very different from anything you've seen while watching the "Tiger King." All of the tigers are neutered so there's no breeding or cub petting and they do not take photos of people with the animals.
"We have an elevated walkway and the reason why we do that is, it creates a lot less stress on the animal," Miceli said.
This story was originally published by KMGH and KTNV in Denver and Las Vegas.