For nearly 20 years Joe Exotic ran a petting zoo in Oklahoma that housed the likes of lions, tigers and snakes.

He has now been sentenced to 22 years in prison for trying to hire a hitman to kill an animal rights activist and killing five tiger cubs.

The unfolding drama between Exotic and Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist from Tampa, Florida, who founded the Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary, is played out in Netflix ’s docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Exotic opened the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in 1999. At its peak it housed more than 50 species including lions, bears and wolves.

However, the treatment of those animals was long disputed, with a number of animal charities claiming animals were hit, kept in poor conditions and crying out in distress.

In 2006 Exotic and his park were fined $25,000 for not providing adequate veterinary care, failing to protect visitors during animal handling and not enough adequately trained staff.

One of the most damning reports was released in 2012 by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

For four months over the summer and autumn the previous year, an HSUS investigator worked undercover as an animal caretaker at Exotic’s park.

The report claimed animals were kept in “barren conditions” and “bred to provide infant animals for public photo shoots and ‘play time’ sessions and often cared for by workers who have little-to-no experience handling large carnivores or primates”.

Tiger cubs were also “punched, dragged, and hit with whips” while “visitors, including children, were bitten, scratched and knocked down by tiger cubs, some of whom were too mature to be used for public handling or photo shoots”.

The report said: “One tiger named Sarge was used in a photo shoot at GW despite being nearly a year old and capable of inflicting severe injuries to the public.

“The owner of GW told park staff that allowing Sarge to interact freely with patrons was ‘very illegal’ even though photo sessions conducted that same day had allowed such interaction.

“GW’s park manager told staff that if patrons ask the age of a tiger, ‘…just say they’re, they’re just a couple months old. You’re not lying, you’re not telling the truth… couple months old. That’s all they need to know. Ah, don’t tell ‘em it’s sixteen-weeks-old and that cat over there we’re going to play with later is eighteen-weeks-old, the one over there is a month older….’.”

During their time at Exotic’s park, the undercover HSUS investigator reported that five endangered tigers died, alleging that two sick tigers were never seen by a vet were killed and buried.

“A worker confirmed GW’s method of tiger euthanasia was gunshot and described it as ‘pretty gruesome’,” they reported.

Another cub is said to have suffered a head injury in Exotic’s house while the body of a tiger named Hobbes “was picked up by a worker from a ‘bone museum’ in Oklahoma City who commented that it would be a shame to let the tiger’s skin go to waste”.

The investigator also said newly born tiger cubs were removed from their mothers to be hand-reared while unwanted animals were offloaded to other facilities.

One of the most disturbing accounts was the death of a horse that was allegedly shot five times before its body was fed to some of the park’s big cats.

The report quoted an unnamed member of staff at the park who is said to have told HSUS’ undercover investigator: “…and Scott takes the horse and we put it by the Dumpster…and Davie goes ― ‘POW!’

“Hits the motherf***** right here…blood start gushing out of his nose…three fingers [width] under his eyes…the nose…horse ran crazy…he start gushing blood everywhere…on Davie, on the f****** cars parked over there…the dumpster was covered in blood…‘shoot again Davie, shoot again’. ‘POW!’ Again.

“F****** horse wouldn’t die…‘POW!’ Third time, still no man, f****** the horse was kicking, the f****** blood squirting everywhere.

“Fourth time, ‘POW!’ F*** no! The fifth one he finally f****** shot it…God damn!”

Other allegations include:

  • A sick serval that went without veterinary care for weeks. It was later euthanised.
  • Tigers and lions bred to create ligers, a controversial species not found in the wild. Conservationists say ligers can have genetic defects and their breeding is unethical and for greed.
  • Toddlers and children allowed in enclosures with adult wolves.
  • Bears going without water in temperatures above 100F.
  • The park manager saying claims it would need to close because it couldn’t pay its water bill during a heatwave were an “an advertising ploy…to get people to generate money”.

While Exotic wasn’t formally investigated or charged over these allegations, he was convicted of eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, as well as the murder-for-hire of Carole Baskin.

America’s Lacey Act makes it a crime to falsify records of wildlife transactions in interstate commerce.

After Exotic was sentenced in January to 22 years behind bars, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Oklahoma said in a statement that Exotic killed five tigers in October 2017 without a vet present “to make room for cage space for other big cats”.

The statement continued: “Because tigers are an endangered species, these alleged killings and sales violated the Endangered Species Act.”

He also “sold and offered to sell tiger cubs in interstate commerce”.

Exotic continues to deny the allegations. The day before his sentencing he released a letter to Donald Trump asking for a presidential pardon.