The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological foundation is an unforgettable experience. I begin by parking the car alongside a dirt farm-to-market
road right off of the freeway, for although there is a booming crowd of several dozen people today, the park has no parking lot.
As we push through the noisy crowd of tourists, I have to stop and stare at a number of strangely political ads. "PETA Kills!" cries one poster.
"The US Humane Society is a $15 million SCAM!" shouts another. The entire atmosphere is very seedy and leaves me feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
We have a few minutes before our tour is scheduled to start, so we take a quick look around the front of the self-guided part of the park. The main exhibit is a large grassy field, dotted by small concrete bunkers and surrounded by a chemical-green stagnant moat. We climb up a rickety metal ladder onto an observation platform built of plywood that bends disturbingly under our feet. Several tourists find this too unsettling for them and immediately climb back down but we look down across the field at maybe half a dozen large adult tigers on display. They are, for the most part, either motionless on top of the concrete bunkers or trying to cool themselves in the cloudy blue-green water. They look happy enough, aside from the heat and the flies that pervade the entire zoo.
Soon it is time for the tour to start and we head back down. A park employee confiscates our cameras and cell phones, “for the safety of the animals, of course”.
After what seems like an eternity of cramming too many people into an unventilated tin hut with wooden bleachers, we finally meet the star of the park – the
self-proclaimed "Tiger King" Joe Exotic. Stephanie was unable to get a picture of him, due to photography restrictions. However, a quick search for "Joe Exotic"
will yield plenty of results.
Joe Exotic is not what you would expect a park ranger to be. He is skinny but muscular, with his sleeveless shirt displaying forearms covered in black tattoos. He wears a ball cap over his bleached, mullet-ish two-toned hair. He has several piercings on his face. Strangest of all (or perhaps not) is when he speaks, it is a high-pitched country twang that you would never expect to be talking about tigers and lions.
Joe quickly launches into his explanation of the park. It is dedicated to the memory of his brother who was killed by a drunk driver in Dallas, he says. The whip in his hand is to scare away the chickens, which the tigers are deathly afraid of (he gets a laugh at this but I don't see the humor in such an obvious lie) and the revolver on his belt is for trespassers. He tells a story of how animal rights activists broke into his zoo one night and poisoned his chimpanzees because they think they are better off dead than in a cage. The rage in his voice is not an act and I quite believe his claim, "from now on, after dark I'll shoot first and ask questions later."
For the next part of the speech, Joe attempts to bring out some tigers. However, they cower from him and do not want to follow. He grabs one on a leash and drags it onstage; the other shrinks away and eventually he gives up and continues on with just one. He says that they house some 140 big cats here, and explains the difference between rescue (saving a cat in imminent danger of death) and rehome (taking a healthy cat that must leave its existing location do to a change in circumstance, such as new laws or a lack of money). He speaks out against "giving strangers on the internet your money". Sound advice, but I find it strange for a somewhat shady donation-based organization to so quickly bring up scams.
Next, we shuffle out of the tin building and back over to the main tiger pit. Joe has disappeared, and our main tour guide reads a canned script from a sheet of paper.
It consists of some nonsense about trying to breed lions and tigers back together in order to recreate what a sabre toothed tiger would have looked like, all within
four to six generations. The liger he entices to the gate with some raw chicken is an impressive animal, some 900+ pounds of raw strength and very healthy looking.
But I am still disturbed that people with such confused ideas about how genetics work are in charge of this facility, and hope the other patrons are equally wary.
The following few hours are a whirlwind of activity. We see miniature ponies, feed a camel, hold a very distraught baby alligator trying to call for mom, and pet some docile and obviously low-content wolf hybrids. One particularly enlightening part comes when Joe reappears to tell us the story of a lion born with some metabolic bone disease (due to mother who, when rescued, was severely malnourished) who grew up with a litter of dachshund puppies. Sure enough, the now-rehabilitated male lion rolls around in the grass with the small dogs on what I come to realize is Joe's front yard. Yes, he actually lives in a small shack in the center of the park.
The grand finale of the tour is supposed to be playing with baby tigers. To distract us while the tigers are getting ready, park employees bring out and pass around a multitude of animals with little to no explanation of what they are or how they were acquired. We see skunks, goats, lizards and tortoises. The staff drapes Burmese pythons over the necks of unsuspecting groups, causing them to shriek. Joe takes great pleasure in this, laughing uproariously each time.
Eventually the tigers do come out: one young adolescent and one five week old baby. The adolescent romps around chasing a teddy bear, more or less uncaring of the outstretched hands of the tourists trying to pet him. The baby, however, is not happy, and howls continuously. The caretaker quiets him down after a fashion, but he remains scared and cranky throughout the encounter. At one point, Joe's walkie-talkie crackles with something about "two got in a fight, had to knock one out." Joe sprints off, jumps on a 4x4, and flies in a cloud of dust to the back of the park. Based on the lack of gunfire, we can hope that the tiger was merely tranquilized, not killed.
The staff keeps the tigers out for quite some time, but when they are noticeably tiring of human interaction, we leave to go peruse the self-guided portion of the
park again. For the most part, it is more of what we have been seeing all day. Too many animals have been crowded into too few cages. One particularly heartbreaking
exhibit had three "grizzly bears" (I have my doubts as to their lineage, it appears they might have been experimenting with hybridized bears as well) stuck in a
small muddy pit. One bear was reaching through the bars, trying to at least touch something green. Another bear lay in the corner, sucking his thumb and panting
deliriously. We found a distraught chimpanzee which screamed and thrashed at the bars at the sight of us, so we quickly left him alone. Some of the other exhibits
were slightly better, but none of them were suitable habitats for these majestic predators.
As we left the park behind, I mulled over everything we had seen. On one hand, it was obvious that Joe Exotic and his team love the animals dearly and most of their
issues come from a lack of funding and education. There is no obvious scam here; they try to provide for the animals with what meager means they have. On the other
hand, they are intentionally making a bad situation worse by continuously breeding the animals together in misguided genetic experiments. The wild tiger may well be
doomed to extinction, but what we saw at The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Foundation is a shadow of the great creatures that once ruled the jungles.
See more photos from our experience here