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Exotic Theories 

After Zanesville, an Oklahoma advocate cries conspiracy

"It's a ticking time bomb, because if someone thinks they're going to walk in here and take my animals away, it's going to be a small Waco."

In the wake of last year's exotic animal tragedy in Zanesville, you could imagine such words having come from Terry Thompson, the 62-year-old who released 56 exotic animals on his central-Ohio farm before shooting himself in the mouth on October 18.

But the Waco moment comes from a man named Joe Schreibvogel, an exotic animal advocate interviewed in May by CBS News. "Joe Exotic," as he calls himself, owns and runs an sanctuary and zoo called G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma that counts among its residents 170 tigers. He has been one of the most vocal and active defenders of exotic animal owners in the country.

With Ohio debating new, stricter regulations regarding private ownership of exotic animals, Schreibvogel has parachuted in to testify before hearings in the House and Senate. He's also recently come under scrutiny for his own operations in Oklahoma, and he champions one of the more outlandish theories about what happened in Zanesville last fall: that Terry Thompson did not take his own life, but was murdered buy an unknown gunman.

In April, Schreibvogel, who is also the president of the United States Zoological Society, an animal outreach and education group he created in 2008, met with reporters in Columbus. Among his talking points that day was a round of advocacy for shutting down some of the more poorly run sanctuaries in the state. But talk soon turned to Zanesville and how it was central to Ohio's movement to severely limit exotic animal ownership.

"It was a setup to further this agenda," he said. "I believe Terry Thompson was murdered."

Reporters in the room sounded audibly taken aback by the claim, and the incredulous follow-up questions came quickly.

Pressed further, Joe Exotic said the conspiracy was much larger than anyone could have imagined, and involved local authorities and the Ohio Division of Wildlife, a branch of government known more for its preservation of threatened species than its covert takedown of dissidents.

But it's a theory 49-year-old Joe Exotic isn't backing down from, even if it tends to morph a little in scope from conversation to conversation, and ultimately lacks any real bad guy.

"The whole thing stinks from square one in my opinion," he says by phone in mid-May, one day after appearing before the Ohio House and the same morning he is to make his way to Thompson's Zanesville farm to film a video about the conspiracy.

"I'm looking at it from two angles: [as] an ex-police chief and a man who owns more tigers than almost anybody in the United States."

Sure enough, Schreibvogel, who sports a long blond mullet and a black mustache that make talk of anything more serious than SpongeBob something of a chore to buy into, was briefly the chief of police in Eastlake, Texas, in the 1980s. He and his family opened the Oklahoma tiger sanctuary in 1987.

In the coming weeks, Ohio will likely enact a ban on most exotic animals, with the exceptions of small monkeys and snakes. The groundswell of support for the restrictions stems from the Zanesville tragedy, an international news incident that featured relentless coverage of authorities' efforts to contain the dozens of lions, tigers, bears, and other animals roaming the countryside before they could harm innocent people.

Despite hundreds of interviews and even more investigations by the media, no one can say for sure what drove Terry Thompson to do what he did. There were alleged marital problems, outside attention on his private Jumanji, and some possible money trouble. What resulted from all or none of that was the dangerous and selfish actions of a suicidal man.

Schreibvogel doesn't think so. He thinks someone — and that's as specific as he gets — saw Terry Thompson and his 73-acre farm as the perfect rallying point to swing public opinion toward an exotic animal ban.

But the more he talks, the more Schreibvogel thinks it might be something else altogether.

"I've gotten anonymous letters in the mail with leads," he says. "They go into telling me of multiple deaths — Terry's one of them — and about people wanting Terry's property for fracking. They get all the way down to knowing who the snitch was telling them everything that Terry did, and it implicates the sheriff's department and a former FBI agent. So I don't know yet whether it was to further the agenda or for his land."

Joe Exotic declines to name the other men supposedly killed, the former agent, or who would want to steal Thompson's property. But he does have plenty to say about why Zanesville doesn't add up.

Among his concerns: the cages had been cut, not opened with keys; a worker on site was only gone for a little over an hour, not long enough for events to occur as authorities describe them; chicken blood was found around Thompson's body, but no bucket used to carry the chicken blood was found; the gun Thompson used to shoot himself had been bought from a sheriff's deputy, but no one has been prosecuted for selling Thompson the gun; and leopards were left in their cages, something only someone with keen knowledge of animals and leopards' reputation as being the most dangerous big cats would know.

"He had keys, so why would he cut the cages?" he asks. "And as an animal lover and someone who would have died for those animals, why would he cut the cages apart knowing the animals were going to be slaughtered?

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