Joe Exotic Hits Hollywood

Joe Exotic Hits Hollywood

The Tiger King- With a bleach-blonde mullet, a black mustache, and more tattoos and piercings than Tommy Lee, out-spoken animal activist Joe Schrelbvogel might be my new favorite rockstar.

Schrelbvogal is the owner of GW Exotic Animal Park, an animal sanctuary home to over a thousand exotic animals including miniature horses, wolves, camels and ligers. That’s right, ligers— Joe is breeding a mix of lions and tigers, and he has interesting reasoning behind it. “Animals of the world are proving to us that our view of how the world began is a little wrong,” he says. Schrelbvogal’s theory is that before the Ice Age, lions and tigers were one of the same. After the ice melted, the lions were stranded in Africa and the tigers were stranded in Asia, evolving into two separate species. “They’re genetically the same animal otherwise they wouldn’t breed. I’ve worked with several universities who’ve studied the science and DNA behind this. They’re actually releasing a big article in January to prove they’re the same species.”

Many of the animals at GW Exotic, like the Alligators from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, are rescues from similar organizations that can no longer take care of them. Some are rehomed from private owners who can’t keep up with little Simba once he transforms into his father Mufasa, king of the jungle.

Referred to in the press as a “literal Noah’s arc in the middle of Oklahoma,” Joe’s forty-five acre land oasis would make for an incredible place to shot a film. And at the center of it all is Joe himself, who appears to be a sort of modern day Mogli, (one Disney reference too many?), walking around the place and making sure the animals are happy on a daily basis. But just who is the charismatic man behind the GW Exotic Animal Park?

It all started at the tender age of nineteen, when Joe was crowned the youngest police chief in Texas history, and ready to dedicate his life to being a cop. But in 1985, his life was about to change: “My career ended one night when a drunk driver hit me on a bridge. I moved to Florida to do my physical therapy and my neighbor was the manager of Lion Country Safari at the time. He brought home all the baby tigers and monkeys to bottle-feed and take care of,” he said. Joe was hooked.

Just a few months later, him and his brother became owners of an exotic pet store themselves. And so began the transformation from GI Joe to Joe Exotic, all he needed now was a name change.

“My last name is horrible,” he laughs. “I started doing magic show years ago and none of the kids could pronounce it.” I couldn’t help but think Siegfried and Roy when I heard that, the famous duo who preformed a big cat magic show in Vegas years ago. “I had a magic act with a spider monkey named Little Ricky, I trained him to hold a microphone and we had a voice recording for him so it looked like him talking and he would ‘talk’ to the kids. We were teaching little kids not to make fun of other kids who look different.” A pioneer for anti-bullying before Lady Gaga even knew what bullying was, I love a man who’s ahead of the curve. “Anyway, one of the little kids couldn’t pronounce my name and started calling me Joe Exotic.” Today, Joe has a large tattoo of Little Ricky, commemorating his friend on his left arm.

Shortly after, Joe Exotic and his family sold the pet store and bought property in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, which became the GW Exotic Animal Park. The park opened its doors to the public on October 14, 1999.

Today, people come from all over the country to tour the interactive zoo and meet the animals, but for some it’s Joe Exotic’s celebrity status that’s the draw. After all, the country bumpkin’s ability to handle even the biggest of cats kinda makes Cesar Milan and his Pitbulls look pale in comparison. A tiger whisperer who’s sassier than Honey Boo Boo, I think I smell a reality star in the making.

And speaking of reality stars, is it just me, or does Joe bare a striking similarity to the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin? A fellow wildlife expert who’s larger than life personality made him a household name. Already profiled by PBS and National Geographic, to name a few, Joe’s colorful persona seems to really resonate on camera in a similar way that Steve’s did. As it turns out, the two were friends.

“Steve and I never met in person, but became good colleagues over the phone,” he says. “When I first started in this industry my first recuse was an eleven foot alligator with a severe eye infection and vets in the US didn’t know what antibiotics were ok for alligators to take. I figured I’d give it a shot and call Steve’s zoo in Australia. Instantly, Steve and his vets got on the phone and helped our vets. Soon after that I had another situation with a rescued Kangaroo who threw her pouch inside out. No vet in America knew what to do so I called Steve again and he was very helpful. His death was very heartbreaking to me.”

To commemorate his friend’s death, Joe built a large indoor alligator complex inside theGW Park and named it The Steve Irwin Memorial. The complex currently holds eleven alligators and two crocodiles, Steve would have been proud.

So, would Joe ever consider following in his old buddy’s footsteps and doing a show himself? “I’m in the process of trying to do that now, I’ve been offered several contracts. My dream is to have a zoo makeover type show, where you go around the world and help under privileged zoos.
We successfully did this in Missouri last year and rebuilt their zoo because the government was going to take their animals away. After three days with us the government came for a checkup and they received perfect scores.” Kind of sounds like another peroxide lovin’ blonde who goes around doin’ salon makeovers, Tabatha’s Salon, anyone? “In todays world they’re interested in taking away animals from people and sanctuaries like ours are being overrun by animals. Some people just need a helping hand.”

Most recently, a PBS documentary profiling Joe and his park featured footage from inside his home: a sanctuary for baby tigers to roam about freely, equipped with stuffed animals and chewing toys, (although they did seem to have a certain affinity for the furniture). At the center of it all was Joe, sitting on his livingroom couch, bottle-feeding one of the cubs.

One day these big cats may grow up to roam the jungle, but for now they seem rather content in roaming the zoo’s rather enormous enclosures, posing for pictures and working hard as what Exotic calls, his “animal ambassadors”. Like his spider monkey. And his ligers. Each animal has a story to tell. To appreciate their story can simply mean interacting with them, and if places like these didn’t exist, kids and adults alike would not have any exposure to wild animals, hence a lack of appreciate for wildlife out there in the world and conserving it.

I wondered just how close Joe lives to the zoo in order to do what he does. “My home is in the middle of the park,” he says. “I have a cage built around my house, inside the cage, which is my front yard, there are five tigers, a full grown lion and six wiener dogs.” Weiner dogs, did you say Weiner dogs, Joe? “Oh yeah. Its amazing how well animals get along with other animals in a rescue situation. It’s like they all know they’re there due to similar circumstances, and they’re grateful.”

I told Joe about my own dog, the love of my life, a Yorkshire Terrier named Milo. And about how I put Animal Planet on for him whenever I leave the house. “I leave it on for my chimp too, I even watch it with him sometimes,” he told me. I told him it was good to hear I wasn’t crazy, as my roommates are convinced I am, and we had a good laugh as he assured me I wasn’t. I ended the call feeling inspired; he just has a certain way about him. Perhaps that’s why the animals are fans, and from one interview, he managed to turn me into a fan as well. Whatever big or small screen project he ends up embarking on, I have a feeling the rest of America isn’t far behind.


~ by topcatsroar on January 30, 2013.

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