Big cat handler killed 5 endangered tigers to ‘make room’ for others, Okla. prosecutors say

Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, an Oklahoma big cat handler on trial in a murder-for-hire-plot, also shot and killed five endangered tigers at an Oklahoma animal park to make room for other big cats, prosecutors say.
Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, an Oklahoma big cat handler on trial in a murder-for-hire-plot, also shot and killed five endangered tigers at an Oklahoma animal park to make room for other big cats, prosecutors say. Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office

An Oklahoma big cat handler was accused in September of hiring a hitman to kill a Florida animal rights activist — and faces news charges for the tiger killings he carried out himself, according to prosecutors.

A grand jury has indicted Joseph Maldonado-Passage — a 55-year-old exotic cat handler and former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate — on 19 wildlife-related charges, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma announced Wednesday. Maldonado-Passage is also known as “Joe Exotic,” Joseph Allen Maldonado and Joseph Allen Schreibvogel.

Prosecutors said Maldonado-Passage shot and killed five endangered tigers in October 2017 at an exotic animal park he ran in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He killed the animals “to make room for cage space for other big cats,” which he would board for a fee, according to prosecutors. He is also accused of illegally selling a two-week-old baby lion cub, a baby lemur, lions and tigers.

Maldonado-Passage pleaded not guilty to the two earlier murder-for-hire charges, KFOR reports. If convicted on those earlier charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison, according to prosecutors.

He faces substantial fines and prison time if convicted on the new charges of violating the Endangered Species Act and other wildlife-related violations, prosecutors said.

The murder-for-hire charges came after Maldonado-Passage paid someone $3,000 to murder the woman in Florida in 2017, with the promise of thousands more if the hitman succeeded, prosecutors said. Maldonado-Passage later tried to pay an undercover FBI agent to kill his target, court documents allege. The woman was never harmed.

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The targeted woman was Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, according to a news release issued by the Florida animal rights nonprofit and big cat sanctuary after Maldonado-Passage’s arrest.

The nonprofit had criticized Maldonado-Passage for operating “one of the most notorious cub petting roadside zoos in the country.” In response to that criticism, Maldonado-Passage made threats for years against the rescue group and its leader — including recording a video of himself shooting “a blow up doll dressed to look like Carole,” the group said.

Maldonado-Passage’s anger at Big Cat Rescue began after the nonprofit started to tell malls across the Southwest and Midwest — where Maldonado-Passage would bring tiger cubs — that the cubs were leading “miserable” lives, Big Cat Rescue said.

That encouraged malls to drop the traveling tiger exhibits, according to the nonprofit. But then Maldonado-Passage renamed his exhibit “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” in a bid to trick others into thinking Big Cat Rescue itself was operating the petting zoo, which led to an intellectual property rights lawsuit in which Big Cat Rescue was awarded $1 million, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

Maldonado-Passage was livid.

“For Carole and all of her friends that are watching out there, if you think for one minute I was nuts before, I am the most dangerous exotic animal owner on this planet right now,” Maldonado-Passage said in a video, according to the Post. “And before you bring me down, it is my belief that you will stop breathing.”

Baskin said federal agents alerted her to Maldonado-Passage’s murder-for-hire plot, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

But Baskin suggested activists like her wouldn’t be targeted by people like Maldonado-Passage if the federal government did its job to protect animals in the first place.

“This shouldn’t happen,” Baskin said, according to the Times. “I shouldn’t be out there taking the brunt of this alone, because the (United States Department of Agriculture) knows that these people are breaking the law.”

Big cat bones were recently dug up at the site of Maldonado-Passage’s animal park, which now has new owners, KJRH reports.

“Never again will this narcissistic man negatively impact this zoo,” the new owners wrote in a September statement after Maldonado-Passage’s arrest, News9 reports. “We hope his incarceration begins a healing process in this industry.”

Maldonado-Passage’s trial begins on Dec. 4, News9 reports.

Three tigers and a lion at Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro got free dental surgery — root canals and extractions — free of charge from the Peter Emily Veterinary Dental Foundation. The big cats had broken and worn teeth.

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