Exotic animal display: Where the wild things are
Despite vociferous criticism from animal rights groups, traveling showman says he offers a once-in-a-life experience
Lions, tigers and bears took over the University Mall earlier this week, and tonight residents are promised a free anti-drug and alcohol magic show at 6 p.m. in the middle of the mall concourse, courtesy of none other than Joe “Exotic” Schreibvogel.
Schreibvogel is the ring leader of a traveling zoo and magic show that has performed for audiences young and old across the country for several years. Schreibvogel was to perform several magic shows earlier this week, but his tour bus broke down, leaving him stranded at his animal park in Wynnewood, Okla, After chartering a bus and starting an emergency fund-raising effort to fix the bus, Schreibvogel was scheduled to arrive in Nacogdoches sometime Friday afternoon. He said he will take the stage tonight before heading back out of town Sunday.
Preceding Schreibvogel’s arrival was an 18-wheeler trailer carrying baby lions, bears and tigers that have been on exhibit at the mall all week. For a $25 donation, mall patrons can take pictures and visit with the animals for eight minutes. Schreibvogel owns and operates a non-profit animal ranch in Oklahoma called the G.W. Exotic Animal Park. The park was founded in 1997 and named in honor of his brother, Garold, who was killed by a drunk driver in Corsicana, Texas. Schreibvogel says his brother was passionate about wildlife, and he now uses his traveling magic act to build awareness among young people about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and bullying. He will open and close tonight’s show with songs he wrote about his father’s inability to express love to his dying son and how he was forced to take his brother, who spent a week in a coma due to his injuries, off life support.
Schreibvogel says he is on a constant hunt for donor money to help keep his park, which also houses various volunteers, afloat. He says he takes no salary, and the only people on his payroll are the commercial truck drivers he uses for the traveling baby animal show and to pick up meat for the animals. He also mentions that he used his inheritance from his grandfather to keep the park running and it’s 1,400 animals fed, which he says takes about $60,000 a month.
It’s because of that large sum of money that Schreibvogel says he is “forced” to breed young lions and tigers and take them out on the road. Despite his claim that he gives the baby lions and tigers to zoos and other accredited preserves, it is an action that animal rights groups like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals oppose vehemently.
According to Lisa Wathne, who is a captive exotic animal specialist with PETA, said, “Joe Schreibvogel is directly contributing to the exotic-animal trade that he says he is against. But the truth of the matter is, he is putting a lot of animals into that trade. It’s despicable.”
But Schreibvogel claims that patrons to his wildlife park cannot sustain the costs of operation, and Internet scams have dissuaded people from donation through his Web site. On the site, he talks about a crusade to save “dying malls across America” and describes his traveling act as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the over 2 million people he meets a year.
“We help the malls, and they help us by letting us use the space for free. I meet 2-year-old people and 95-year-old people that have a life dream of being able to go see a tiger in real life. So, here they have the option to sit in a cage, get educated, fall in love with and get a personal aspect of a baby tiger that otherwise they would have never seen in their life,” Schreibvogel says.
But it’s that chance encounter that James Bias, spokesperson for the SPCA of Texas, said is a misrepresentation of true wildlife advocacy.
“You know you’re taking wild animals, regardless of how they’ve been raised, and they are still wild and not domesticated, and putting them on wheels and trucking them around. That’s just not what these animals were geared to do, and, of course, you’re increasing their stress levels and the potential for abuse,” Bias said. “For somebody to claim that this is an opportunity for the community to see wild animals up close, this usually doesn’t represent what their normal environment is. You’re not going to see someone who’s holding a tiger in a shopping mall realize that these animals deserve dignity. I mean this is the least dignified way for animals to be cared for.”
In fact, Schreibvogel, his animal park and his traveling animal show have all been fined and cited for numerous infractions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for enforcing federal animal welfare laws. In January 2006, the USDA filed a lawsuit against Schreibvogel, and he along with his park were put on 18 months of probation for 14 infractions, including poor living conditions for the animals, unsanitary conditions and a general lack of proper care for the animals by untrained staff, the suit said. Schreibvogel was also ordered to pay $5,000 in fines and has since been taken off probation. Schreibvogel says the USDA “targeted” him after he was cited for not having “a readily identifiable employee” within proximity to some rescued baby deer. In a moment of passion, Schreibvogel says he threw the USDA inspector who issued the citation out of the park — a move he now says he regrets. Schreibvogel says he is now in compliance with the USDA and provided The Daily Sentinel with copies of 11 inspection reports dated from November 2006 to January 2009 reflecting his claim, with only one infraction concerning proper recording keeping.
Schreibvogel also claims that a YouTube video made during his probation period in 2006 by the PETA group was a “frame job,” and the undercover PETA agent used sympathetic friends to incriminate the park. The video depicts park volunteers debating whether or not to properly euthanize a lame horse. They argue that using chemicals on the animal would prevent them from feeding the meat to some of the other animals, and that a gunshot to the head was more appropriate. The video also shows an animal handler hitting tigers with the butt of a rifle and a goat with a horn ripped off exposing its brain. The video says the goat was left injured for days before being shot and fed to the big cats at the park. Another portion of the video has an audio recording of one park volunteer explaining how easy it is doctor the “feed report,” because inspectors cannot prove you did not feed the animals on any given day. The park volunteer goes on to acknowledge the park was in violation of the law when the park ran out of meat and did not feed the animals for three or four days. The volunteer also says they are only allowed to fast the animals for a single day, according to U.S Department of Agriculture regulations. “They can’t go back, unless they’ve got video cameras out here, and prove that we didn’t feed them that day. There’s no way they can go back and prove we didn’t feed them,” the volunteer says to the undercover PETA agent. Other parts of the video show park staff kicking and swatting animals and shows the erratic behavior of some of the captive tigers and bears, describing them as having gone “cage crazy” from lack of psychological stimulus in their tight confinements.
Schreibvogel says that all but one of the employees in the video had been fired for other infractions and that the USDA had cleared him of any wrongdoing after an investigation into the claims made in the video. Schreibvogel says that the animals he rescues come from private owners, and due to newly imposed restrictions in cities across the nation on exotic-animal ownership in the past decade, he has taken in dozens of animals like tigers and chimpanzees.
Summing up his long-lived feud with PETA, Schreibvogel says, “They believe the animals are better off being put to sleep rather than being put in a cage. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s fair.”
In response, Wathne maintains PETA just wants Schreibvogel to change his business plan, saying, “We don’t want to euthanize his animals. What we would like to see Joe do is stop breeding animals … stop bringing them into an already overcrowded world and into a situation where he has to dump the animals after he’s done using them, and provide the animals he has with appropriate space, food and shelter. If he were operating as a true sanctuary, we would have no concerns with him. And, in fact, we would support him just as we support numerous other sanctuaries across the country.”
By TRENT JACOBS
The Daily Sentinel
Friday, April 24, 2009