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?

The Muskingum County Sheriff's Department conducted a lengthy and thorough investigation that officially ruled Thompson's death a suicide. The reports — and they are extensive — are available on the department's website for anyone who's interested. Sheriff Matthew Lutz has overseen the whole process, and he is more than a little perturbed at Schreibvogel's bombast and conspiracies.

"I'm aware of him and his theories, yes. And I'm aware of the video on YouTube where his Barbie ringtone phone goes off," says Lutz. "His theories are totally bogus. For somebody that wasn't at the scene to go public like that and comment on what's based on his evidently wild imagination, I think it's not very professional. And to include me in a conspiracy theory frustrates me. I understand people have passion about exotic animals, but he needs to worry about his situation in Oklahoma instead of worrying about what he does out here."

The "situation in Oklahoma" is a report this month from the U.S. Humane Society alleging that G.W. Exotics has problems with sick animals, dead tigers, and unsafe conditions — "a ticking time bomb" that could be 10 times worse than Zanesville, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle told CBS News. It was that phrasing that prompted Joe Exotic's Waco reference.

G.W. Exotics was previously cited by the U.S.D.A. and fined for violations in 2004. Exotic Joe's very organization is a polarizing presence on the animal advocacy landscape.

"U.S.Z.A. was formed by Joe Schreibvogel apparently so he could claim his facility was accredited, since G.W. Exotic Animal Park would never qualify for accreditation from the two legitimate accrediting organizations: the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Global Federal Animal Sanctuaries," says Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife regulatory specialist at the Humane Society. "The U.S.Z.A. is not taken seriously as an organization that upholds proper standards of animal care and public safety."

Schreibvogel claims some 467 members in the U.S.Z.A., ranging from pet store owners to hog farmers to tiger breeders. The organization's purpose, he says, is to stand up for its members and help them abide by the U.S.D.A.'s laws.

"A lot of sanctuaries are full," he says. "So if anyone wants to confiscate the animals, there are a couple problems. If we can help them clean up and educate them and help them keep their animals, it's better for everyone."

His supporters not only appreciate his support, but double down in vocally backing Schreibvogel's theories about what happened in Ohio. Comment sections linking to his press conference video are littered with sentiments like, "You don't know Joe. He knows what he is talking about. Exotic animal owners are being prosecuted because of the Zanesville incident, which is suspicious to all that can put two and two together." Or, "Better to tell the truth and be called names than lie and be believed. All of the evidence points toward some kind of attack on Terry Thompson."

State Senator Troy Balderson, whose hometown is Zanesville, sponsored Ohio Senate Bill 310 to ban exotic animals and listened to Schreibvogel's testimony. He appreciates the interest, but he's not buying the balderdash.

"He's been an advocate. That's what our government is about," says Balderson. "My conversations with him have not involved any theories, but I've heard things like that before. Matt Lutz and his agency did a thorough investigation, and they found the complete opposite."

Schreibvogel isn't the only one holding the conspiracy candle. Type "Terry Thompson" into Google, and the first search suggestion you'll get is "Terry Thompson Murdered."

Terry Wilkins, owner and operator of Captive Born Reptiles in Columbus, also testified before the Senate committee in opposition to Senate Bill 310, which he called unconstitutional and unethical. Wilkins also said that the state murdered Thompson, a man who was the "perfect patsy" to get the movement needed on exotic animal bans.

"SB 310 is not going to stop someone from murdering Ohioans and turning their animals loose," he said near the conclusion of his Senate speech.

Like any group, those who object to exotic animal bans are a mixed bag. Though it's all under one roof of impassioned advocacy, not all groups agree or even like each other, and the fringe elements can help steer the conversation away from policy initiatives toward, well, conspiracy theories. All of which takes the focus away from legitimate criticisms and concerns about the state's efforts to severely limit exotic animals, and undermines the side's credibility. The rhetoric coming from the opposing flank — "ticking time bomb," and "10 times" worse than Zanesville — is no less inflammatory or reductionist, but has the important credential in the world of public opinion of not mentioning state-sponsored covert murders.

"I think Sam Mazzola is part of this too," says Schreibvogel, referring to the Lorain County man whose exotic animal menagerie became a lightning rod for controversy in Northeast Ohio, especially after a handler was mauled to death by a bear in 2010. Mazzola himself died in July 2011, in what the coroner called a consensual sex act gone wrong. He was found handcuffed to his bed with a hood over his head and a sex toy in his mouth.

"Why's there no investigation to find out what happened?" Joe Exotic asks today. "I don't think [the state] made a big enough thing of it."

Schreibvogel adamantly refutes all of the Humane Society's claims against his roadside zoo. An itemized fax details his objections to the report, the majority of which consists of one repeated phrase: "This is an outright lie."

He says, "The USDA, sheriffs office and all have cleared me off all these allegations. I am sick of being a marketing target for animal rights organizations to raise money for their own pockets."

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