On a recent road trip to Denver, Colorado, Will Mayo made a stop at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, made famous by Netflix's docuseries "Tiger King."
Though Mayo does not consider himself a professional photographer or animal activist, he documented his experience to show a new perspective of the park and capture "a moment in time."
Mayo told Insider that during his visit, he thought the park had "derelict"-looking enclosures, a dried-up pond, and animals that appeared to be sad and tired-looking.
Mayo says zookeepers on the property seemed to genuinely care about their animals, and are simply "doing the best that they can with what they're equipped with."
Lauren Lowe, who is married to the park's current owner Jeff Lowe, told Insider that the "animals are in excellent health," citing "regular inspections by the USDA and Oklahoma Fish and Wildlife."
Once a relatively unknown roadside attraction, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Garvin County, Oklahoma, has become recognizable around the world after appearing in Netflix's "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness."
As explained in the docuseries, the animal park once belonged to former zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, but was later signed over to investor Jeff Lowe. The property has since been awarded to animal activist Carole Baskin as part of a court order filed at the start of June, but is still being managed by Lowe and his team until they have to vacate.
All the while, the park remains open for visitors to explore. One visitor, Will Mayo, stopped by the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park during a recent road trip. Though Mayo, who runs a tech company, doesn't consider himself to be a professional photographer or animal activist, he documented his experience in the hopes of showing the park from a new perspective.
Insider spoke with Mayo about his experience, his perceived condition of the animals on-site, and what it was like for him to actually visit the popular zoo.
Will Mayo decided to visit the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Garvin County, Oklahoma, while on a road trip.
Speaking to Insider, Mayo said that he runs a tech company that creates audio for news publications as his day job, but also enjoys photography on the side. So while on a road trip between Lawrence, Kansas, and Denver, Colorado, Mayo decided to "take a hard left" and stop in Oklahoma, where he knew he wanted to photograph the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
"I'm not an animal-rights activist or anything like that — I just knew it was something worth seeing, and it was never going to be the same again," Mayo said about the zoo, which will soon be taken over by animal activist Carole Baskin. "It's about documenting that perspective and moment in time. It's not good or bad, but it's an experience."
According to Mayo, the roadside zoo had few visitors when he arrived around noon one day in June.
After arriving in Oklahoma, Mayo checked into an RV park next to the zoo. The next day, he drove approximately half a mile to the attraction, and said he discovered only a few cars along the side of the road and in the parking lot.
According to Mayo, the scene wasn't much different inside the park, which he described as being "so empty," likely because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"I went into the entrance building and you couldn't touch anything — you couldn't actually buy tickets there," Mayo said. "You had to pull out your phone and buy a ticket because they couldn't touch anything. They couldn't sell anything, couldn't sell any merchandise because they were trying to be observant of all the CDC stuff, but they were giving away water."
"They were trying to be compliant with current rules and the current environment, which was the first interesting observation; I would have expected it to not be that," he continued. "People were wearing masks and stuff like that. I was assuming that everything would be a free for all, which it wasn't."
Inside, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park was "incredibly depressing," according to Mayo.
"It looked like an abandoned house's overgrown backyard," he told Insider about the zoo. "None of the paths were particularly clear. I was like, 'Is there anything even in this cage? Oh yes, there's a black bear in the corner.'"
"It's pretty desolate and as you can see in one of my photos, they had a little pond but it was totally dried up and there was no water in it," he continued. "Everything just looked shriveled and dry and not taken care of."
Lauren Lowe declined to comment on Mayo's statements regarding his perceived state of the park.
Mayo said that, to him, many of the animals on-site looked sad, tired, and uncared-for.
According to Mayo, one of the animals that he remembers "most vividly" from his visit to the zoo was a fox that "just looked so sad and so drained and so tired."
"It was just almost leaning against the fence because it almost seemed like it didn't even have the energy to walk around," Mayo said of the animal.
"Our animals are in excellent health and our regular inspections by the USDA and Oklahoma Fish and Wildlife make no such findings of neglect," Lauren Lowe, who is married to the park's owner Jeff Lowe, told Insider via email.
"Might an animal appear to be bored in the small cages that Joe Exotic built? Possibly, that's why we are working day and night to complete the new zoo in Thackerville, with massive enclosures," she continued.
In a statement previously emailed to Insider, Jeff Lowe said his new property will become "the greatest Tiger Park the world has ever seen."
"Thanks to our loyal fans and customers, and the amazing people who work at the zoo, the new Tiger King Park is opening in Thackerville, Oklahoma, this September, directly adjacent to the world's largest casino, Win Star World Casino and Resort," he said at the time.
However, as Business Insider's Sophia Ankel reported, federal officials have recently launched an investigation into the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park after "pictures surfaced allegedly showing lions neglected, injured, and with maggots and flies infesting their ears," also known as a condition called "flystrike."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shared the photos, which it says it received from a whistleblower. Additionally, the Garvin County Sheriff's Office, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have all recently visited the park to investigate similar complaints, according to a statement shared by the Sheriff's Office on Facebook.
"The Garvin County Sheriff's Office is working in connection with The USDA," the Sheriff's Office wrote on Facebook. "We will be working side by side with their investigators along with ours. The USDA has already removed a lion cub from the park on Monday of this week and a big cat was placed in isolation for medical reasons."
"We appreciate all the pics and the videos that have been sent to our office," it continued. "If, based off the investigations, charges need to be filed, this office, along with the USDA, will submit charges. I know that our office, Game and Wildlife, and the USDA are working hard to take care of these complaints. I trust the expertise of all the agencies involved."
In a statement emailed to Insider, a representative for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation said the department is "very aware of the concerns with the health of the animals at the exotic animal park in Wynnewood."
They also confirmed that Oklahoma game wardens have visited the zoo to inspect enclosures and animals that are native to the state, but that big cats, such as the allegedly-infected lions, fall under the USDA's jurisdiction.
Representatives for the USDA did not immediately respond to Insider's requests for comment.
Though staff in the entrance building were wearing masks, Mayo said he didn't see any zookeepers wearing face coverings while he was there.
Still, Mayo said that approximately half of the visitors he saw wore face coverings while there.
"The couple of people that were there, half of them were wearing masks, but it was pretty sparse," Mayo said. "I walked around without any guidance or anything."
"The only thing separating you from that 2-inch square wire was a 3-foot fence that you could just step over," he continued. "I could have reached my hand into the cage if I wanted to. There were many cases where I was standing there looking around, I didn't see another person, and all I saw were beautiful animals in cages surrounding me."
There's more than just exotic animals at the roadside zoo.
For example, there was a non-functioning bungee-jump attraction on the property, which Mayo described as looking like a "derelict carnival ride."
Though he said there were some zookeepers on-site, Mayo said he chose not to interact with anyone while there.
Because zookeepers had holstered handguns, "I was keeping my distance," Mayo said. "I didn't particularly feel safe."
"A general sense of discomfort, unease, and lack of stability or consequences is what I felt," he added.
Lauren Lowe also declined to comment on Mayo's feeling of discomfort while at the park.
However, he said he did notice a touching interaction between a zoo visitor and Erik Cowie, a zookeeper prominently featured in "Tiger King."
"Erik was kind of walking around and mumbling, and I was just watching him and seeing how he was interacting with the world," Mayo said. "It was pretty amazing because he really does love the animals I think."
"The one moment I wasn't able to capture was one of the patrons who was a father with two or three kids and his wife," he continued. "He went over to Eric and said 'Eric I love what you do,' and he had a $100 bill in his hand. He tried to give it to Eric, and Eric said, 'I'm not here for the money, there's a donation box in the front, I'm here for the animals.'"
Mayo went on to say he believes that Cowie "does authentically care," and pointed to a photo he captured of the zookeeper with a bear, which he said "felt familial" and "like he was looking at one of his kids."
Speaking to Insider, Mayo said he hopes people look at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park from a new perspective after seeing his photos.
"I don't think people are actively trying to do something wrong, and I get the sense there that they're not trying to be cruel," Mayo said of those who work at the roadside zoo. "They really are doing the best they can with what they're equipped with."
"I didn't feel anyone in the park was trying to take advantage of the animals by any means — I didn't feel that at all," he added. "It's just that this is the best they can do. I always challenge people to see things from different perspectives, and while it is sad and cruel if you're looking at it from the macro perspective, I think there is something there where they really are trying to do what they think is right. And that's an uncomfortable reality, but I think that is what they're trying to do."
To see more of Mayo's photography, visit his Instagram page.
Read the original article on Insider