WYNNEWOOD — Authorities suspect an arsonist is to blame for a fire that left seven alligators and a crocodile “boiled to death” last week in this small Garvin County town.
Joe Schreibvogel, founder and spokesman of the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park, told The Oklahoman on Tuesday he suspects his longtime enemies – rogue animal rights activists – are behind the fire, which allegedly was set in the early morning hours of March 26.
No individuals or groups have been arrested or charged in the case.
The fire destroyed a video production studio and two reptile enclosures. One crocodile, a female who Schreibvogel claims is “between 35 and 40 years old,” survived the blaze by escaping her enclosure when its doors blew off.
“This was personal,” said Schreibvogel, the sound of broken glass crunching under his feet as he surveyed the damage at his beloved animal sanctuary.
“They targeted the studio to shut me up. They wanted to get me off the air...or else they would’ve targeted something else (in the zoo).”
In addition to the loss of property and the deaths of the eight reptiles, Schreibvogel claims a large number of electronic storage devices used in the recording of his independently produced TV show, “Joe Exotic TV,” were stolen by those who set the fire.
Expensive computers and other costly production equipment were left to burn, along with the animals.
Schreibvogel said some of the reptiles who died last week in the blaze once belonged to the late singer Michael Jackson — the self-described King of Pop.
“When they closed down Neverland Ranch and auctioned off his property, they asked us to come get all the reptiles and alligators and other stuff,” he said.
“We also helped them relocate and move some giraffes he had on the property.”
‘A clear criminal act’
Like Schreibvogel, authorities also believe last week’s fire at the zoo is a case of arson.
Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes, interviewed in his office Tuesday afternoon, said one of his deputies who worked the scene of the fire last week “could still smell the gas while he was there.”
Rhodes said his office and the state fire marshal are leading the investigation into the blaze but noted that investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation “have been poking around, too.”
It’s a federal crime — after the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 — to damage and interfere with roadside zoos like the one in Wynnewood.
A former zoo employee was interviewed Tuesday at the Garvin County sheriff’s office, but Rhodes said “at the end of that interview, we’re not close to identifying anybody as a suspect.”
“By no means are we close to any conclusion in this investigation,” the sheriff said. “But we do have a clear criminal act in this case...whereas, in the past, we haven’t always had that.”
Rhodes said an arson investigator with the state fire marshal’s office spent “a long day” at the zoo shortly after the fire was reported, but the inspector wasn’t ready to officially declare the blaze a case of arson.
The state investigator did rule out other likely causes of such a fire, though.
“He ruled out electrical. He ruled out lightning, from the storms we had out here last week,” Rhodes said.
“All indications at this point...are arson. We’re investigating leads that the arson was used to cover a burglary.”
‘An ongoing pattern’
Over the years, Schreibvogel has made many allies in the exotic pet trade — and likely just as many enemies.
He’s also been a frequent target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates roadside zoos and research facilities that use animals to test products and medications.
Animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and the Humane Society of the United States routinely contact the media to offer negative stories about Schreibvogel’s park and often provide evidence to the USDA if they suspect the zoo isn’t complying with federal laws that regulate exhibitors of so-called exotic animals. More....