EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Four big cats were rescued from a defunct drive-thru roadside zoo in northeast Oklahoma on Friday, June 10, 2022.

The AZA-accredited Oakland Zoo in Oakland, CA, and the globally accredited big cat sanctuaries—Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, AR, and Lions Tigers & Bears in Alpine, CA—collaborated to rescue the two tigers, lion, and tiger hybrid from the Oklahoma facility that was once open to the public and offered cub petting and photo opportunities.

“The conditions were pretty deplorable, filthy, there was someone bringing them food and water, but they were really in need of rescue,” said Emily McCormack, the animal curator for Turpentine Creek Wildlife Rescue.

The rescued animals were all females and were declawed, which is a standard practice in the cub-petting industry. An elderly, arthritic lion that required immediate medical attention was sent to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.

“The older lion is the cat that we brought back here due to our amazing vet hospital that we have onsite. She definitely would not have made the trip across the country to California.”

McCormack said the older lion was in a barn and the roof of that barn was torn off, due to a severe storm. According to McCormack, the lion hadn’t had anyone around it for possibly seven years.

“Try to imagine what that lion might be going through mentally and what she did endure for seven years all alone,” said McCormack. “Lions are very social animals. I think it’s going to be a happy adjustment for her eventually.”

The tiger hybrid was found with a facial wound and bowed legs. She was sent to Oakland Zoo along with another tiger. The last tiger was sent to Lions Tigers & Bears.

“There are major red flags that show these animals were victims of the cub petting industry,” said Bobbi Brink, Founder and Director of Lions Tigers & Bears. “These cats were declawed and in poor health and living conditions. They were likely bred to be photo props, and once they grew too big and were no longer profitable, they were abandoned. We are the animals’ voices, and we need to work toward education and legislation because each animal rescued makes a difference.”

“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 Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. “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.”

According to a press release, The roadside zoo and its owner were reported to have ties to “Joe Exotic,” also known in the well-known Netflix series as “Tiger King.”

McCormack said one of the best ways to stop the cub petting industry is to not support them. She encouraged people to research reputable animal sanctuaries and facilities and to advocate for the Big Cat Public Safety Act which would place much-needed restrictions on big cat private ownership and contact with the public.