OKLAHOMA – While many would like to focus on Tiger King’s Joe Exotic’s colorful personality, and some may choose to vilify him due to his most explosive moments, there was no denying that many lives were affected, animals and humans. Namely the loyal and earnest GW Zoo day-to-day manager John Reinke.
John and I caught up in Oklahoma where he is currently babysitting a few circus big cats. He is best known for his close relationship with tamed lion Bone Digger. Local news featured the lion chilling on his bed, getting along with other animals, namely weenie dogs. Fast forward to today, John is babysitting a lion puppy and maybe getting attached again.
More importantly, we had a great conversation on the imminent domain issues surrounding the events that transpired in Tiger King’s multiple seasons. We both agreed that there is a full assault on the ability for private zoos and well-meaning animal lovers to exist, operate, and even to preserve and grow populations of endangered animals. This is exacerbated by “supposed” animal rights activists that in the end, are hurting the animals and private citizens.
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In John’s case, this was deeply personal. Focused on taking care of 500 animals and being the “adult in the room” at GW Zoo, he was dragged into a bitter feud among wildlife preserve owners, such as Carole Baskin, who ultimately used the might of the federal government to shut down competitors. For those who have not seen the series, the tragic shutdown of the GW Zoo led to John’s beloved animals, including three that were his own, meeting an untimely and premature demise.
Let’s hear from John in his own words, busting some myths and giving us some real talk on what these actions ultimately mean for the animals we are supposed to care for and protect.
On 25 Cubs Dying
“We got persecuted for losing so many cubs. There was a big investigation. KMR admitted to [the pet formula being the cause]. They admitted this to us, sent us a whole pallet of milk and tried to make up for it. But ultimately, it was Joe’s license. He got persecuted for the cubs dying. Everybody thought, ‘Oh my God, you killed all these cubs’. Trust me, I didn’t like it any better than you did. But we couldn’t figure out what it was. We had lots of data and necropsies of all the milk that was in their stomachs. So we gotta get that word out there on that because that misperception and the claims of euthanasia were all to be sensational.”
On 5 Euthanized Tigers
“Jeff and Lauren threw it out there that they were only two and three year old cubs. They were not. All of the cats had been there before I got there. They were older cats, probably 17, 18, 19 years old. The USDA told us we had to do something about the limping cats. They didn’t care what we did. They said it [simply had] to be addressed. Either put them on drugs the rest of their lives, or euthanize them. So Joe elected to euthanize them. And instead of calling the vet, he decided to do it the cheap way, because [the vet is] not cheap. Carol got all of our mall visits and so money wasn’t coming in. [Our survival] was all coming from donations through the gate and [enough] just wasn’t coming in. So it’s hard to pay that much money.”
The Exact Euthanization Process – Government Oversteps Boundaries
“There are a lot of people who look at Tiger King and say, animal abuse. There wasn’t any animal abuse. It was Endangered Species Act (ESA) infractions that Joe got in trouble for selling tiger cubs. The only ‘tiger abuse’ anybody saw or heard of was the shooting of the five tigers. When you euthanize an animal, a bullet to the head is the fastest way to do it. People don’t understand. If you call the vet, you have to tranquilize the cat. So you have to ‘dart’ it. It’s gonna run around the cage for a while before it passes out. And then you go in there and inject juice into him to put him to sleep. And it’s just tormenting [compared to] a bullet [which] is instant and done.
Ultimately, they’re going after farmers now. They’re not going to be able to shoot their horse or cow in the field. You’ll have to call and pay $1,000 to come and dispatch one of the animals and it’s crazy. That’s what it’s come to. There’s a lot of sensitive people out there.” Bottom line: there are times when animals need to be put down. We do this with cats and dogs every day. To remove or overregulate the ability to do this can be detrimental to the animals they claim to protect.
On Taming Animals
“They say that playing with a big cat when it’s little is detrimental. It’s not detrimental in any way, the cats love it. We don’t sedate them. We’re not drugging them. Cats sleep 20 hours a day. If they want to sleep, they can sleep. If they want to walk on your lap, they’ll walk on your lap. It’s just amazing the respect you get from a big cat when you play with a little cat, and then you see a big cat. So wow, that turned into that. It’s amazing to see how big and fast they get. It puts it in people’s minds, ‘This is pretty damn cool. I need to be looking into this deeper’. There’s no wild you can’t save. The wild is beyond saving in my belief. It’s gone. It’s a myth. You’re only gonna see this stuff in captivity and they’re taking that away from us.”
Animals Were In An Individual’s Name Due To Rules
“When you have a USDA license, your license is not in the entity. It is in a personal name. Joe’s was in Joe’s name, not the zoo. Tim Stark’s was in Tim Stark’s name, because they want somebody responsible, but it’s [ultimately] their animals. When they came in, and took all those animals from Tim Stark, they took Tim Stark’s animals. They didn’t take Wildlife In Need’s animals. I don’t even know who gave Jeff Lowe the permission to put all Joe’s animals into his name. They just swapped them over like it was nothing. And it’s somebody’s property. It was Joe’s property.”
The 3 Animals The Government Took From John
“Three of those animals were personally mine, but they had to be in Joe’s name because we had them on display. I had to walk away because I don’t have a bunch of money to fight Jeff Lowe and the government. The USDA just gave him permission to take all the animals. And there’s that tricky word ‘take’. The USDA says to take any ESA animal, that means shoot, steal, sell, all that stuff. I had a monkey, Lucy, before I even found this zoo. [She] was with me all the time. So we put her on display and I put her in Joe’s name. And while I was there, I had a lion named Bone Digger and a camel named Cletus. Those were my animals. Joe left the zoo, I left the zoo the same day just because I didn’t get along with Jeff Lowe. I went back a couple times to check on the animals so he couldn’t say we abandoned the animals. The second time we went back, we had words, and I never went back. And from that time, he threatened my life. [My] attorney said that it’s going to cost upwards of $50,000 to get my animals back. Well, I’m just a normal guy. I don’t have $50,000. So I had to walk away. It’s so sad. And ultimately, Jeff Lowe lost all that stuff. He starved them to death. And there wasn’t anything we could do. I even contacted PETA and said, ‘What the hell’s going on? He’s [letting] them starve. Somebody, get in there and take care of these animals.’ They didn’t care.”
Bone Digger, The Lion
“Bone Digger was my lion. He was actually born at the zoo. First of all, it’s really rare to have a male lion born. There’s genetics involved. But we finally had a male lion and I told Joe that it was mine. So I raised him in the house with weenie dogs.And they grew up together and they loved each other. That lion thought he was a weenie dog. And you can see it on YouTube. There’s a lot of videos out there where we had enjoyment. After 180 pounds, I finally had to kick him out of the house. So we put him out in the front yard. He lived most of his life out in the front yard. Ultimately, they moved him to the back of the zoo. Jeff Lowe killed him after I left. It was a bad time for me.”
“If you’re having a bad day, you go in and sit in the cage and a lion comes up and sits in your lap. There is nothing that makes everything else go away in the world. You don’t have a care in the world when that happens. And it’s truly amazing. I just have a certain bond with animals, all 500 of them. If it came in from another facility, I give myself five days to be able to touch that cat, animal or camel, whatever it was, and I’d make it happen. Lions are my favorite. Ultimately, they’re the best. Recently, I’ve gotten to interact with a giraffe. The size of them is truly amazing. I didn’t have a clue. You can go to a zoo all day long but wait till you stand beside that thing and look up at its belly. They just love on you. They stretch their neck down, and they try and lick. They put their head on your shoulder. It’s just crazy.”
On Wildlife Ownership
“I hate to call them out but LSU has a tiger because they have a tiger as their mascot. They’re exempt from the USDA rules and laws. Why is that? What makes them so special? Carol’s Big Cat Safety Act is the same. Carol’s exempt from all the laws, and that’s wrong. What’s good for one is good for everybody. And that’s the way it should be. But she wants control. [Most places] are good educational places. You can learn a lot if you just listen. They tell you facts. So there’s a lot of people who have never seen a lion or a tiger in person. I thought that’s crazy because every zoo that’s open right now has them. Go to your zoos. Go see them. Go see your circuses. Learn for yourself. Do some research.”
On Conditions In Circuses
“There’s a lot of misconception about circuses. These guys, [the animals], have a heated and air conditioned building they can get into if they want to. They have wooden houses outside. They get fed every day. They have a pretty good life here. Circuses are still happening for now. [The government hasn’t stopped them], but they’re working on it. There are a lot of states that actually have to avoid [circuses] now, because they don’t even want [people] traveling with the animals. It’s gotten pretty crazy. Right down the road are 26 elephants that are in a facility. They’re going to live their life out and they breed them because they want to keep them alive. But they just don’t perform with them anymore. There are a couple other [circuses] that are still going out until they just stop it completely. To me, a circus is elephants, lions, tigers, clowns, trapeze artists, but they’re trying to eliminate all the animal acts. It’s going to be a sad, boring circus. Let’s get rid of the myth that circuses abuse their animals. I can tell you firsthand, these guys are spoiled. I mean, I can see they have air conditioned and heated facilities. They have outdoor facilities, they have their own kitchen. It’s crazy how good these cats have it here. And I’ve been to the elephant facility. It’s crazy how good they are. They don’t beat their elephants. They don’t beat them or poke them with the stick. Everybody thinks they do. People have gotten way too sensitive, and listened to the internet too much. Yeah, go out, see your circus firsthand and just enjoy it.”
Fight Against The Bit Cat Safety Act – It Hurts Animals & Ownership
“It’s ultimately going to end up shutting down all your animals. They keep focusing on big cats, because it’s called the Big Cat Safety Act. But it trickles down into smaller animals. You can’t have them in captivity, you can’t travel with them. You can’t use them in education anymore. It all circles around to the GFS (Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries), Carol’s operation, and they can get away with it, but nobody else can. And that’s just wrong. Call your congressman to stop The Big Cat Safety Act. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the environment. It’s not good for interaction.”
On What John Would’ve Liked The Public To See About Joe and GW
“We did amazing things. We had sick children that had cancer come by, or we would go see them [with the animals]. Joe fed the needy. He fed anybody that needed to be fed every Thanksgiving and every Christmas. And they got into the zoo for free every Thanksgiving and Christmas. We gave presents to kids and gave them hope, trying to keep them positive. That’s what got me through everything I’ve done. You’ve got to stay positive, you can’t give up. And that’s what it takes.”
John Reinke, a survivor, who lost his legs and trained himself to walk on prosthetic legs, is a clear example of positivity in action. In the next installment of this interview, we will discuss some important exclusive details on John Reinke’s perspective on the events around Tiger King.