Coronavirus: Oklahoma prosecutor vows to keep ‘Tiger King’ wildlife park closed to crowds

Coronavirus - Oklahoma prosecutor wants ‘Tiger King’ wildlife park closed to crowds during COVID-19 crisis

WYNNEWOOD, Okla. — An Oklahoma prosecutor vowed Monday to file charges against the owners of the wildlife park featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” if they reopen the facility in violation of state coronavirus restrictions.

“The best thing to do at this point in time would be for them just to agree to close down and remain closed until the restrictions are lifted,” Greg Mashburn, district attorney for Garvin, McClain and Cleveland counties, told the Oklahoman.

The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park has become a major tourist attraction since the March 20 debut of the seven-episode limited series, which chronicles the exploits of former owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic.”

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Pictured in an March 2018 Street View image is the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla. The former owner of the park, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was sentenced Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, to 22 years in prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill a Florida critic and animal rights activist.
Pictured in an March 2018 Street View image is the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla. The former owner of the park, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was sentenced Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, to 22 years in prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill a Florida critic and animal rights activist. (Google)

Maldonado-Passage, 57, is currently serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

He was convicted last year of trying to have his main critic, Tampa animal activist Carole Baskin, murdered. At his trial and in the Netflix documentary, Maldonado-Passage accused Jeff Lowe -- who now owns the park with his wife, Lauren Lowe -- of setting him up.

Former Oklahoma wildlife refuge owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, left, was sentenced Jan. 22, 2020, to 22 years in federal prison for plotting to kill Carole Baskin, right, a Tampa-based animal rights activist. Maldonado-Passage's feud with Baskin, his crimes and his career exploits are the subjects of a wildly popular Netflix limited series, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness."
Former Oklahoma wildlife refuge owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, left, was sentenced Jan. 22, 2020, to 22 years in federal prison for plotting to kill Carole Baskin, right, a Tampa-based animal rights activist. Maldonado-Passage's feud with Baskin, his crimes and his career exploits are the subjects of a wildly popular Netflix limited series, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness." (Netflix)

Jeff and Lauren Lowe have reported great business since the debut of the documentary.

“Another long day in the books,” read a March 22 post on the park’s Facebook page. “Thanks to all the people that visited today. We enjoyed meeting each and every one of you.

“The power of TV is crazy. Thank you, Netflix, for erasing the coronavirus scare in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.”

Two days later, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt limited gatherings statewide to no more than 10 people. On Saturday, however, the Lowes were touting the sunny weather and encouraging people to visit the park.

“Wow, what a busy day. We want to thank everyone that visited today,” a post written that night stated.

According to the Oklahoman, Stitt last week ordered all nonessential businesses to close in counties with at least one confirmed COVID-19 case.

Garvin County, which includes Wynnewood, had its first confirmed COVID-19 case March 20 -- the same day “Tiger King” premiered, according to the Garvin County Sheriff’s Office.

The Oklahoman reported that Garvin was one of the original 19 counties covered by Stitt’s executive order.

As of Tuesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported six confirmed cases in Garvin County.

On Sunday, Jeff Lowe wrote that the park would not open as usual Monday morning.

“Hey guys, after two of the busiest days this park has ever seen, we are going to step back tomorrow and confirm with the governor that we are operating within the guidelines of the COVID-19 requirements,” Lowe wrote.

He wrote that the park is a licensed agricultural entity, which he said he was assured would make it exempt from the executive order closing nonessential businesses.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter told the Oklahoman on Monday that the wildlife park is not exempt from the order.

“We have consulted with county officials and determined that pursuant to the governor’s executive order, his business does not qualify as an essential service and may not remain open,” a spokesperson for Hunter’s office said.

Lowe said in Sunday’s Facebook statement that the zoo staff was having trouble controlling the crowds showing up since the Netflix documentary’s debut.

“At one point today, we had cars lined up a half-mile down the road,” Lowe wrote. “We want to accommodate everyone, it just might not be possible to do safely.”

He wrote that they would post the park’s hours after conferencing with Stitt.

Watch Jeff and Lauren Lowe talk about their animals in this 2017 video.

Though the zoo has posted photos and videos since Sunday, there has been no more word on whether the facility would reopen to the public. The park’s website still lists its hours as 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

A phone call to the park went unanswered Tuesday afternoon. An automated message stated the owner of the number had a voicemail box that had not been set up.

Mashburn did not mince words Monday regarding the consequences if the Lowes or their park’s visitors violate the coronavirus restrictions. He said he would seek a restraining order or injunction if necessary.

Criminal charges could also be filed.

“Obviously, it’s a crime and we’ll take enforcement action as necessary to get people to stay away,” Mashburn told the Oklahoman.

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