There are more captive tigers in the U.S. today than there are in the wild throughout the world.
The popularity of exotic pets, such as tigers, lions, bears, even monkeys, has touched off a fierce debate between owners and animal activists.
Critics point to a recent tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio.
Five exotic animals were returned to an eastern Ohio farm earlier this month. It was a painful reminder of the day last October when owner Terry Thompson released 56 such animals before, police said, committing suicide.
Forty-eight of his animals were eventually killed by authorities concerned over public safety, pushing Ohio lawmakers to author a bill restricting private ownership of exotic pets.
Arguably, one of the loudest, most defiant voices on the front lines of the big cat debate is that of Joe Schreibvogel, owner of GW Exotic Animal Park outside Oklahoma City.
He’s had run-ins with regulators.
What is he standing up for?
“The American right (in the) Constitution to be able to own whatever I want to own, as long as it’s legal.”
State laws on private ownership of wild animals are all over the map.
GW Exotic is licensed by the federal government because it’s open to the public – charging admission to come very close to what Schreibvogel calls the largest “refuge” for “unwanted” animals in the world.
Rolling out over 54 acres, it’s home to nearly 170 big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, and about 800 other animals of every size and stripe, including camels and exotic birds.
He also runs a controversial breeding program, selling tiger cubs – only to zoos, he says – for up to $5,000 each and, at the same time, cross-breeding exotics like “ligers,” a cross between a lion and tiger, and even what he calls a tuliger, a mix of a liger and a tiger.
Does Schreibvogel have a background in zoology or veterinary medicine?
“I grew up a farm kid, and that’s pretty much my background,” he replied.
Over the years, GW Exotic has come under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for concerns ranging from “public contact with dangerous animals” to a “lack of physical barriers.”
Armen Keteyian spoke with “CBS This Morning” co-hosts Erica Hill and Charlei Rose about the state of regulation of exotic animal ownership across the country, and about what it was like being so close to wild animals in GW Exotic Animals Park.
Records show that, in 2006, it had its license suspended for two weeks and paid $25,000 for “facilities violations”.
It is currently under investigation by the USDA for the death of 23 tiger cubs between 2009-2010.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says, “If something does go wrong, it can happen on a scale and on a magnitude that we have not seen before in this country.”
The Humane Society was so concerned it recently sent an activist undercover into GW Exotics, posing as an employee.
“If he don’t want to walk,” Schreibvogel says as he’s seen in an undercover video smacking a cub, “smack him in the ass and make him walk.”
The undercover operative documented what the Humane Society calls alarming and abusive behavior.
Other undercover video shows a tiger being hit on the nose and a tiger being dragged on gravel.
In another incident on tape, a boy was suddenly attacked while interacting with a young tiger, and began screaming.
“Any person with any whit of common sense,” says Pacelle, “knows that large, predatory animals are going to lash out at people. That’s why sensible organizations say you have to keep people and dangerous wild animals separate.”
CBS News showed the undercover video to Schreibvogel, who charged the incident with the boy was “set up” by the Humane Society.
Is he saying the Humane Society would put a little boy in harm’s way?
“Oh, hell yeah, in a heartbeat,” Schreibvogel replied. “I am saying Wayne Pacelle would stoop low enough to put a little kid at risk to get his agenda, so he could continue to get money.”
Pacelle called that “a desperate and pitiful comment. Joe Schreibvogel has a history … of allowing private citizens, patrons, tourists to interact with his animals.”
Told that Pacelle had called GW Exotic “a ticking time bomb” potentially 10 times worse than Zainesville, Schreibvogel responded, “It is a ticking time bomb – if somebody thinks they’re going to walk in here and take my animals away, it’s going to be a small Waco.”
Questioned about the highly emotive comparison by CBS News, he responded: “It’s a very powerful statement, because I have poured my entire life into what I do, to care for animals. Nobody is going to walk in here and freely shut me down and take my rights away from me as long as I am not breaking the law.”
Schreibvogel says he believes in regulation, but only in what he calls the “right” regulation, whatever that may be.
To see Armen Keteyian’s report, which has some of the undercover video, click on the video in the player above.