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Tiger King, Missouri style: Is your favorite tiger facility a true sanctuary?

The Show-Me State's rules on big cat ownership are lax compared to some states

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Izzy the tiger.JPG

Izzy is a male tiger at Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary.

Millions have watched the hit Netflix docu-series Tiger King, but fewer know the more tragic story overshadowed by the colorful characters: Thousands of majestic big cats are privately held in the United States – including some in Missouri. 

Joe Exotic Tiger King.jpg

Joe Exotic has come under controversy as the the star of the newest Netflix hit Tiger King.

There are more captive big cats in the U.S. than there are in the wild, according to a National Geographic investigation. Because there is no federal inventory, the true number is unknown, but experts estimate there are between 5,000 and 20,000 big cats in captivity, versus only 3,900 in the wild. 

Missouri has its share of roadside zoos and interactive safaris that show big cats to the public. Some have shut down in recent years. D&D Farm Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in Columbia housed big cats for almost 30 years, but last year the facility sold all of them, owner Dale Tolentino says, after his wife Debbie died. The farm had racked up $4,000 in federal fines for things like dirty cages and haphazard fencing, which Tolentino says he couldn’t pay. Tolentino declined to say where he sold his big cats.

Other places are still in business, like Wild Animal Adventure Park in Stanton, Missouri, which has six big cats; Promised Land Zoo in Branson, which offers tiger cub petting; and National Tiger Sanctuary in Saddlebrook, which calls itself a rescue organization for exotic and domestic animals.

However, only one facility in Missouri is verified as a tiger sanctuary by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries: Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary in Ste. Genevieve. The federation requires standards of care such as no human-exotic animal interaction (including cub petting) and no buying, selling or breeding exotic animals. 

“Good facilities want to tell you as much information as they can because they want to educate you,” says John Madigan, operations manager at Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary. Madigan says certain signs indicate that a so-called sanctuary isn’t upholding certain standards of care. For example, he says to look out for, “If they’re secretive, if they don’t want to answer questions about either where they got their cats or how they take care of the cats.”

Compared to most of the country, Missouri has weak big cat ownership laws, says Kathy Blachowski, program manager at Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, an online-based organization that supports true sanctuaries and humane big cat practices. The BCSA does not certify facilities. There are four states that do not restrict keeping any dangerous exotic animals as pets and two more states that do not regulate big cat pet ownership specifically. 

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Mona the tiger was caged at a facility in Missouri before being rescued by the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance.

Until 2012, Missouri also had no big cat ownership laws. Now Missouri requires a Large Carnivore permit from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which requires big cat owners to have insurance on its animals and keep a personal inventory of all big cats. This inventory does not need to be shared with the state nor local law enforcement. Missouri law does not require greater standards of care for its big cats, such as restricting sales and breeding.

The USDA requires an Animal Welfare license for anyone who breeds, exhibits and sells certain types of animals. It also does not require greater standards of care for its big cats.

Missouri ranks ninth in the country for the number of dangerous incidents with captive big cats, according to 911 Animal Abuse, a website operated by Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and a key figure in Tiger King. The state is also a hub for exotic animal sales. Aljazeera America reports that the nation’s largest exotic animal auction, Lolli Bros. Livestock Market, is held four times a year in Macon, Mo., just an hour drive from Columbia. 

Keeping animals in roadside zoos is inhumane, says Lisa Wathne, spokesperson with the Humane Society of the United States based in Washington D.C. “These animals are just psychologically gone,” Wathne says. “Their environments are so deprived and so unnatural. They are so bored… For the most part, so many of them, because of their miserable circumstances, are just kind of robots. And to me, that's one of the saddest things about this.”

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Mona the tiger post-rescue at Carolina Tiger Rescue, which works with the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance.

The practice of selling playtime with tiger cubs has come under harsh criticism. When the cubs grow too big to pet, they are often sold, according to a Humane Society press release. “It’s cruel, not cool, to interact with a tiger cub,” says Susan Bass, director of public relations at Big Cat Rescue, Baskin’s big cat sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. “In the wild, these cats are the alpha predators. They would not be sitting on someone’s lap for a photo. Any time you see a wild animal doing something they would not normally be doing, it is a red flag.”

Zoos and aquariums have other accreditations to confirm humane animal practices. Any facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) meets animal welfare standards. The Missouri facilities with this accreditation are the Saint Louis Zoo, The Butterfly House in St. Louis, the Kansas City Zoo, the Sea Life Kansas City Aquarium, Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield and the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka.

Curious about big cats near you? Vox Magazine researched facilities that have shown or sold big cats and other exotic animals to the public in Missouri. We compiled the list below using state and federal records and other research. We looked at the USDA database of Animal Welfare licenses in Missouri. We also requested records from the Missouri Department of Agriculture showing all Large Carnivore permits from Jan. 1, 2018 to April 23, 2020. Vox emailed and called each location at least twice. Some did not respond or refused to comment.

Verified Sanctuaries

Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary (Ste. Genevieve, Mo.)

Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary is the only certified big cat sanctuary in Missouri. It is verified by GFAS and is a founding member of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance. Missouri state records show the sanctuary also has MDA Large Carnivore permits that expire June 1, 2020. “We rescue big cats that are either abused, neglected or unwanted, and we bring them to our facility and provide them with life-long care,” says John Madigan, operations manager at Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary. “So as a true sanctuary, we don’t buy, sell, trade or breed these guys. We just give them a home to live out the rest of their lives in peace.”

The sanctuary currently has three tigers. Two sister tigers, Gracie and Thor, were seized from Exotic Animal Paradise, a roadside zoo near Springfield, Mo. that shut down. That facility is now called Wild Animal Safari. The male tiger, Izzy, came from Great Cat Adventures, a cub petting operation in Illinois, where he was going to be euthanized, Madigan says. 

The sanctuary is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. Its normal tour hours are Thursday through Sunday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The sanctuary is located at 19620 Crown Ridge Rd in Ste. Genevieve.

Accredited Zoos and Aquariums

Saint Louis Zoo (St. Louis, Mo.)

At the heart of Forest Park, the Saint Louis Zoo is home to many big cats and other exotic animals, such as tigers, lions and jaguars. These animals can be seen at the zoo’s Big Cat Country exhibit, which is part of the Red Rocks area of the zoo. The Saint Louis Zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

The zoo is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. Summer hours will be Sundays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The zoo is located at 54 Government Drive in St Louis.

Kansas City Zoo (Kansas City, Mo.)

When the Kansas City Zoo first began in December 1909, four lions were part of the original zoo family, according to its website. Since then, more big cat species have been brought onto its property. The Kansas City Zoo is accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is partially funded by the Zoological District.

The zoo is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. Summer hours will be Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The zoo is located at 6800 Zoo Drive in Kansas City. 

Dickerson Park Zoo (Springfield, Mo.)

Dickerson Park Zoo offers many opportunities to see exotic animals like big cats, and it has an animal hospital and raptor rehabilitation program on its property. In addition, Dickerson Park Zoo has conducted research initiatives for big cat species like tigers and lions. The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Dickerson Park Zoo is closed until mid-May because of COVID-19. Normal hours will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. The zoo is located at 1401 W Norton Rd in Springfield.

Other Facilities

D&D Farm Animal Sanctuary and Rescue (Columbia, Mo.)

Holly the tiger at D&D Farm open house

Jeremy Tebeest gives Holly the tiger a drink of water at a D&D Farm Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in Columbia during open house in September 2017. Holly was a former photo shoot tiger from Wisconsin Dells. 

A local exotic animal attraction, D&D Farm was home to numerous big cats for almost three decades. 

“The exotic wildlife, we take them in, lot of times they’ve been starved and abused, neglected. And we give them a permanent home,” Tolentino told KBIA in 2016.

However, the USDA issued several fines and warnings to D&D Farm, including that the cats lived in small cages held together by zip ties and other materials, according to the same KBIA article. Warnings in 2011 and 2012 were for “failure to provide enclosures sufficient to safely contain tigers, a lion, a liger, wolves, servals, and a bobcat; filthy cages; failure to provide the animals with adequate shelter and drinking water; allowing the public to come dangerously close, within 1-foot, of a tiger cage; and inadequate perimeter fencing,” according to 911 Animal Abuse. These were not the only citations the facility received for mistreatment of their exotic animals. 

Tolentino, however, refers to the USDA as a “money-making facility.” After being fined around $4,000, the farm struggled to make ends meet. “The government shut us down,” Tolentino says.

The farm is located at 6000 N. Creasy Springs Rd in Columbia. The facility is no longer open to the public.

Lolli Bros. Livestock Market (Macon, Mo.)

Operating four times a year, the Lolli Bros. market buys and sells exotic animals such as primates and zebras, according to its website. It does not, however, sell big cats. The market has a USDA dealer’s license to show exotic animals to the public. It is the nation’s largest exotic animal auction, according to reporting by Aljazeera America.

The market has been cited by the USDA before, including a warning for “failure to provide litter to absorb and cover excrement in cages transporting rabbits and a primate” in 2013, according to 911 Animal Abuse. The document also links a 2012 indictment of rhino horn trafficking with one of the Lolli brothers. 

The market’s April 8-11 exotic animal auction was cancelled because of Missouri’s stay-at-home order to combat COVID-19. The next exotic animal auction, from May 13-15 at 9 a.m., has not been cancelled yet, but the market says a cancellation is likely. Lolli Bros. Livestock Market is located at 704 Main Street in Macon. 

Big Joel’s Safari Petting Zoo and Educational Park (Wright City, Mo.)

Another popular local site, Big Joel’s Safari Petting Zoo and Educational Park, does not own any big cats nor have they in the past, says owner Joel Clinger. They do own small cats, such as a caracal and a carpathian lynx, as well as other exotic animals like primates, a red kangaroo and a two toed sloth. Big Joel’s Safari has a USDA exhibitor’s license. Clinger says the park does not believe in breeding for cub encounters.

The park is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. Its normal hours are Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The park is located at 13187 State Highway M in Wright City.

Wild Animal Adventure Park (Stanton, Mo.)

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Screenshot of Wild Animal Adventure Park website.

The first thing viewers will see when they visit Wild Animal Adventure Park’s website is one of the facility’s tigers. Along with other exotic animals, Wild Animal Adventures’ six big cats are some of their most advertised attractions. According to animal caretaker James Smith, the park has an MDA Large Carnivore permit and a USDA permit but is not accredited by GFAS nor is it a member of BCSA. Vox was unable to confirm the facility’s MDA Large Carnivore permit with the state. 

Wild Animal Adventure Park is currently open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day despite recommended social distancing. The park is located at 2719 N Service Rd East in Stanton.

Exotic Animals R Us (Lone Jack, Mo.)

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Screenshot of Exotic Animals R Us website.

Exotic Animals R Us describes itself as an educational outreach program that brings exotic animals like big cats to private events. The website shows multiple images of human-animal interaction with their big cats. The facility has a USDA dealer’s license but is not accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA. The MDA has no records of Large Carnivore permits for Exotic Animals R Us.

Exotic Animals R Us is currently based out of Lone Jack, Mo. and serves the Kansas City area. Vox called and emailed Exotic Animals R Us twice and did not receive a response. It is unclear if the facility is still open to the public.

Wild Animal Safari (Strafford, Mo.)

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Screenshot of Wild Animal Safari website.

Wild Animal Safari is home to 65 species of exotic animals, including tigers, primates and hyenas, according to its website. Along with traditional tours, the facility offers human-animal interaction, including tiger cub petting, according to its website. Wild Animal Safari has a USDA exhibitor’s license and MDA Large Carnivore permits through Nov. 1, 2020 for a Bengal White Tiger named Drako, a Bengal Tiger named Zahara, two African Lions named Jasmine and Hurk and two Ligers named Shakira and Savannah. The safari is not accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA. Vox was able to reach the facility by phone, but the park declined to comment on any of its big cat programs.

According to 911 Animal Abuse, Wild Animal Safari has advertised for bear cub and baboon sales in the Animal Finders Guide. The document also says the USDA cited Wild Animal Safari with “failure to provide veterinary care to sick animals, failure to provide adequate shelter to big cats and primates during cold winter weather, filthy and unsanitary conditions, inadequate drainage in enclosures, unsafe handling and feeding big cats a nutritionally deficient diet.”

Wild Animal Safari is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. It is located at 124 Jungle Drive in Strafford. 

Hostetler Wildlife Farm (Buffalo, Mo.)

Hostetler Wildlife Farm is a dairy ranching facility and tourist attraction where visitors were able to see big cats. According to the Springfield News-Ledger, the USDA fined the farm $5,286 in 2014 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. These violations included insufficient veterinary care, inadequate shelter, unclean drinking water and an improper diet. The farm was also cited for filthy cages with broken, rusty wires, says 911 Animal Abuse.

Hostetler Wildlife Farm has a USDA dealer’s license but is not accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA. The MDA has no records of Large Carnivore permits for Hostetler Wildlife Farm. Vox called Hostetler Wildlife Farm twice and did not receive a response.

Hostetler Wildlife Farm is located at 115 Wildlife Rd in Buffalo. It is unclear if the facility is still open to the public.

Promised Land Zoo (Branson, Mo.) and Eureka Springs Safari Park (Eagle Rock, Mo.)

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Screenshot of Promised Land Zoo website.

With numerous exotic animals, Promised Land Zoo and Eureka Springs Safari Park are baby animal parks for endangered species, according to their website, which describes the parks as family-owned and operated. Alongside general tours, the parks offer opportunities to pet exotic animals as part of their VIP experiences. MDA records show that Promised Land Zoo has two permits for large carnivores named Delilah and Bruce Lee. Those permits expired on April 1, 2020. 

According to 911 Animal Abuse, the USDA fined Promised Land Zoo in 2014 for “failure to have a knowledgeable, adequately trained employee responsible for an adult lion and 7-week-old tiger cub during public exhibition.” Neither facility is accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA.

Promised Land Zoo is currently open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is located at 2751 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway in Branson. At Eureka Springs Safari Park, only the Drive-Thru Park program is currently open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday. This park is located at 32297 State Highway 86 in Eagle Rock.

Branson’s Wild World (Branson, Mo.)

Branson’s Wild World is primarily an interactive aquarium with other exotic animals like mountain lions and British Columbia Wolves, according to its website. Although big cats are not listed on its “Mammals” page, Branson’s Wild World had 11 big cats registered with MDA Large Carnivore permits that expired April 15, 2020. These are three tigers named Tatiana, Mercedes and Zeus; four lions named Moses, Raina, Zella and Thanos; a tiliger named Pandora; a tiliger cub named Reaghan; and two liligers named Chulo and Eclipse. Branson’s Wild World is not accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA. 

Branson’s Wild World is currently closed because of COVID-19 until May 3. The facility is located at 2020 W 76 Country Blvd in Branson.

National Tiger Sanctuary (Saddlebrook, Mo.)

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Screenshot of National Tiger Sanctuary website.

National Tiger Sanctuary is a self-described rescue organization for exotic and domestic animals, specifically for big cats, according to its website. It offers a wide variety of tours, including the chance to feed and pose with big cats, according to its website. The facility had MDA Large Carnivore permits that expired April 1, 2019 for a tiger named Princess and six lion cubs. It has no MDA Large Carnivore permit for 2020. The facility is not accredited by GFAS or a member of BCSA.

National Tiger Sanctuary is closed because of COVID-19 until further notice. Normal hours are Wednesdays through Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The facility is located at 518 State Hwy BB in Saddlebrooke. Vox called and emailed National Tiger Sanctuary twice and did not receive a response.

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