A desperate call early last month ended with a swiftly organized rescue effort across four states that saved the lives of four big cats and brought two tigers to the Oakland Zoo.
Lola and Mia were taken from a squalid roadside attraction in Oklahoma where they had begun their lives as props in a mostly unregulated industry that sells encounters with tiger and lion cubs for the pleasure of tourists.
“Anytime anyone is getting their picture taken with an animal,” says Colleen Kinzley, vice president of animal care at Oakland Zoo, “people should know those animals are suffering.”
The Oklahoma attraction had been cited for multiple animal safety and welfare violations in 2008 and shut down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But its owner, who is believed to have ties to infamous “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, continued to operate until fairly recently.
It was Kinzley who took the frantic call from a woman seeking help for the animals at the now-closed roadside “zoo.” The creatures were neglected, the caller said, underfed and living in squalid conditions.
Oakland Zoo is part of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance and a long-time proponent of rescuing wild animals exploited for commercial reasons or owned by individuals. Plans for the tiger rescue fell into place swiftly. With Kinzley and the Zoo directing operations, the alliance joined forces with Arkansas-based Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, which was closer to the site. A Southern California rescue group, Lions, Tigers and Bears, offered its transport van, and the team headed out.
What they found was even worse than expected. The cats were crammed in rickety cages, and an elderly, arthritic lion was in need of immediate medical attention and care.
Lola, a hybrid tiger, had a facial deformity caused by a chronic, untreated abscess. She also suffers from bowed legs, perhaps the result of her mixed breeding — she’s part tiger, part lion, which doesn’t occur naturally in the wild.
Mia and another tiger, both believed to be younger than Lola and the lion, were in better condition but still suffering from neglect. As a cub, Mia’s claws on both her front feet and hind legs had been removed.
The other tiger and the lion are now with the Arkansas rescue group. And Oakland Zoo staff were thrilled to welcome Lola and Mia on June 10. The Zoo had four tigers — two sets of sisters rescued from the cub petting industry — but the last one died in 2021, leaving the tiger enclosure vacant.
Work has begun on sprucing up the enclosure, Kinzley says, adding additional platforms and areas for Lola and Mia to explore. It’s not yet known whether the pair can enjoy the space together or whether they’ll need to be separated by a fence. Despite their years in the defunct petting zoo, they never had any direct contact with each other.
Lola and Mia were relegated to tiny cages after they grew out of the “cute cub” stage and became more difficult to control. For the past 10 to 15 years, they remained in those cages amid growing piles of feces. Fed on full-feathered chickens, they received only basic care and little interaction with people or other animals.
Nikki Adams, a handler with Oakland Zoo Hospital, is working with the tigers on basic training, which will make caring for them easier. By rewarding desirable behaviors, the tigers will eventually present themselves for examination, injections and treatments. Without the training, Adams says, the tigers would have to be darted with a tranquilizer gun every time they needed care.
Although the tigers were neglected, they’re doing very well, Adams says. When Lola first entered her enclosure, she didn’t know what to make of the straw piled and scattered on the concrete floor. She tapped at it with her paws, warily, but within a few minutes she was rolling in it and roaring her approval.
Mia was very scared at first, Adams says, hissing, growling and screaming. She, too, quickly recognized the improvement in accommodations and, although she’s quite chatty, she clearly is happy being able to explore her enclosure and venture outside.
“She’s changed completely,” Adams says.
The tigers will remain in quarantine for at least 30 days and then will slowly be introduced to each other. They’re currently eyeing each other through a chain link fence.
Lola will get her first full examination next week, says Dr. Alex Herman, vice president of veterinary services. Mia is scheduled for the week after. The medical staff will then learn the extent of any issues that might have developed in those years of neglect, assess their overall health and get a better idea of their ages. Both will be spayed at a later date.
Herman says a veterinary dentist will take a look at Lola’s teeth issues and radiographs will be taken of Mia’s feet to check for deformities caused by the declawing, which often is done not by vets but by owners without the use of anesthesia.
“They came from a terrible situation, living in squalor, no veterinary care, no treatments,” Herman says. “Animals can have a lot of physical and behavioral problems, but they’re doing really well.”
Kinzley and Herman both said Lola and Mia’s treatment illustrates the need to pass the proposed federal Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would govern the trade, possession and exhibition of big cats, including restricting direct contact between the public and the animals. The bill was introduced in the House last year but hasn’t made much headway.
Right now, the ownership and breeding of exotic animals is controlled by state laws. California has strict laws, but other states, including Oklahoma and Texas, are lenient.
“It’s said there are more tigers in Texas than there are in the wild,” Kinzley says.
Tigers are considered critically endangered, Herman says, because of loss of habitat and poaching.
“We need them on the planet,” Herman says.