Four big cats rescued with national collaboration of zoo and sanctuaries


The Oakland Zoo, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, and Lions, Tigers and Bears worked together to save a lion and a trio of tigers from an abandoned roadside zoo in northeast Oklahoma.

A rescue of 4 big cats was facilitated on June 10, 2022 by a collaboration of 3 entities that represented a national effort. The Oakland Zoo, Oakland, California; and big cat sanctuaries—Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (TCWR), Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Lions, Tigers and Bears (LTB), Alpine, California—partnered to rescue a lion, a tiger hybrid, and 2 generic tigers from an abandoned drive-thru roadside zoo in northeast Oklahoma.

Cited and closed by the USDA in 2008 for multiple animal safety and welfare violations, the roadside zoo had previously offered cub petting and photo opportunities to visitors. Its owner may have ties to “Joe Exotic,” known in the eponymous Netflix series as “Tiger King,” according to a joint organizational press release.

The rescue operation was initiated by and funded by Oakland Zoo, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited zoo, that is managed by the Conservation Society of California that was first contacted for help by a concerned Oklahoma resident in May 2022. Colleen Kinzley, vice president of animal care, conservation and research for Oakland Zoo contacted both animal sanctuaries to facilitate the joint effort. Oakland Zoo and TCWR then travelled to the defunct roadside zoo and conducted the onsite animal evaluations earlier this month.

“These big cats were living in small, filthy enclosures. Shelter was provided but was terribly weathered and rotten,” said Tanya Smith, president and founder of TCWR. “Aside from some good Samaritans, they were left alone, fed inconsistently, and needed veterinary care. We’re so relieved to provide new homes to these animals and help them thrive.”

The life-saving journey for the 3 tigers began with the help of a state-of-the-art, self-contained animal rescue hauler owned by LTB, according to the release. The tigers arrived at the Oakland Zoo on Sunday, June 12, 2022. Animal care and veterinary teams were standing by to receive 2 of the tigers and transfer them immediately the zoo's veterinary hospital for evaluation. The zoo's animal care team has already named them "Lola" and "Mia". The remaining tiger arrived at LTB on Sunday night.

Credit: Oakland Zoo

Credit: Oakland Zoo

“For the past 30 years, we’ve fully committed Oakland Zoo’s tiger habitat as a sanctuary for tigers victimized by the circus, roadside zoo, private ownership, and cub-petting industries. Those tigers need help, and we can provide that help while educating the public about the dangers of animal exploitation practiced in those industries. When a concerned Oklahoma resident called us to help these big cats, who have endured so much suffering, there was no question that we would step in and give them the homes and care they deserve, at Oakland Zoo and our partnering sanctuaries, for the remainder of their lives,” said Nik Dehejia, CEO, Oakland Zoo, in the release.

The rescued big cats, of which all are female and some are declawed, include:

An elderly, arthritic lion that required immediate medical attention and care, now at TCWR

tiger hybrid in poor condition and with a badly infected tooth that has caused facial deformity, and bowed legs, now at Oakland Zoo.

Two tigers in separate enclosures, both energetic, but lean; 1 now at Oakland Zoo and 1 at LTB

“There are major red flags that show these animals were victims of the cub petting industry,” said Bobbi Brink, founder and director of LTB, in the joint release. “These cats were declawed and in poor health and living conditions. Most likely, they were bred to be photo props, and once they grew too big and couldn’t be profitable, they were abandoned. We’re the animals’ voices, and we need to work toward education and legislation, because each animal rescued makes a difference.”

In their new homes, each big cat will have a proper habitat, diet, safety protocol, and additional care. This level of care is required by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a certification held by only the top sanctuaries in the nation that provide lifetime care for rescued animals, including LTB and TCWR, according to the rescuing organizations.

Additionally, the AZA is a national organization that sets the highest standards for animal welfare for zoos and aquariums. Upon arriving at Oakland Zoo, the tigers will housed in the on-site veterinary hospital for medical attention and care for approximately 4 weeks before being moved to the zoo’s tiger habitat, which features climbing platforms, 2 pools for swimming, trees, and a grass-covered ground.

TCWR and LTB are 2 of a of handful of sanctuaries in the country equipped to rescue, transport, and provide veterinary care to rescued animals from horrendous living conditions to accredited sanctuaries around the country, including their own.

“We are always ready and willing to collaborate with other accredited facilities when the need for rescue arises. We must fight together to resolve the big cat crisis we are facing here in the United States. No animals should suffer or live in the deplorable conditions these animals had to endure. The lioness was subjected to solitude 24x7 for 7 years that we know of. It was simply inhumane,” said Emily McCormack, animal curator at TCWR, in the release.

TCWR, LTB, and the Oakland Zoo are also encouraging support for reputable animal sanctuaries and facilities as well as advocacy for federal legislation that places restrictions on big cat private ownership and contact with the public.


Oakland Zoo and Accredited Big Cat Sanctuaries coordinate 4000 mile rescue, bring 4 big cats to safe havens. News release. Oakland Zoo; Lions, Tigers and Bears; and Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. June 13, 2022.

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