OKC officials investigate tiger, bear petting zoo
Oklahoma City Animal Welfare is investigating a storefront petting zoo at a local mall where patrons can pay to play with tiger cubs and other baby animals.
Neon Jungle opened at Plaza Mayor at the Crossroad this spring.
The petting zoo is operated by Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. The Wynnewood zoo was founded by big cat breeder and 2018 Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Joe Maldonado, also known as Joe Exotic.
Maldonado sold the zoo to South Carolina businessman Jeff Lowe in 2016. Lowe opened the new Oklahoma City petting zoo in March, transporting baby animals from the Wynnewood zoo to Oklahoma City for daily exhibition.
On its Facebook page, Neon Jungle has been advertising two-person play sessions for $25 with animals like tiger and black bear cubs, a lemur and wolf pup. Customers are allowed to take their own photographs with the animals during the play sessions.
The store also sells stuffed tigers and other exotic animal-related merchandise.
Oklahoma City has an ordinance that prohibits exotic animals from being kept in city limits, but there are some exceptions, said Jonathan Gary, animal welfare superintendent for Oklahoma City.
Traveling circuses, research facilities and people with a federal license to keep wildlife who keep no more than one big cat like a lion or tiger in the city are exempt, according the ordinance.
Gary said he couldn't say much about Neon Jungle because of an ongoing city investigation into the business.
"We have been made aware of this business and are currently investigating the matter," he said.
Lowe said Oklahoma City Animal Welfare officers recently visited Neon Jungle to inspect the business and have told him he is operating within the law.
A property manager for Plaza Mayor at the Crossroads declined to comment.
"I am licensed by the federal government and I was just cleared by the city for doing what I do," Lowe said.
Lowe also said he is in the process of opening a second Neon Jungle location in Las Vegas with a "major casino."
"In fact as I'm talking to you I'm sitting in Las Vegas about to build a great big tiger and lion cub experience on Las Vegas Boulevard," Lowe said.
The animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claim Neon Jungle and the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park use inhumane practices such as separating tiger cubs from their mothers to profit from photo and play sessions with the animals.
Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA, said the group has sent a letter to Oklahoma City officials asking for the city to declare Neon Jungle a public nuisance.
"Taking baby animals away from their mothers to be subject to public handling is inherently cruel," Peet said. "It can cause long-term physical and psychological consequences for the animals."