Here’s an animal welfare controversy that defies quick, easy analysis: It is right or wrong for people to have ‘close — I mean real close — encounters’ with lions, tigers and bears? Read on.

Along with the escalating Brazilian backlash, a trio of news stories loosely connected to livestock production and meat-eating continue to grab mindshare online, namely:

  • The notorious Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China opened for business this week, a scene described by the Times of India with such descriptive phrases as, “sellers torching the hair off carcasses, butchers chopping slabs of canines, and multiple carcasses on several stalls, with stiff pointy tails, leathery yellow skin, eyes shut and barred teeth as if in a final growl.”
  • The lone star tick, which triggers a meat allergy in humans, is mostly found in the Southeast, but public health authorities have now tracked its movements as far north as Minnesota and New Hampshire.
  • Tyson Foods, which installed video cameras and hired off-site auditors to monitor animal handling at 33 processing plants, was criticized by animal rights group Mercy for Animals, who claimed that, “Chickens are bred to grow so unnaturally they often collapse under their own weight, sit in their own waste and develop sores after losing their feathers.”

All of those stories are rich red meat (pun intended) for the activist organizations that never miss an opportunity to excoriate animal agriculture and anybody remotely related to that profession.

However, from the perspective of a high-minded, discerning commentator, none of those news events offer much traction. What, I should adopt the opposing side of a debate about eating “slabs of canines,” or weigh in on the side of poor, misunderstood ticks?

Instead, let’s explore a much different story, one that requires some thoughtful analysis.


The Jungle comes to suburbia

Out in the Heartland of Oklahoma City, a shopping mall is hosting an exhibit that has triggered an investigation by the city’s Animal Welfare department.

The investigation involves exotic species, animal welfare issues and the evolving sensibilities of the public as regards the confinement of what are traditionally regarded as wildlife.

The exhibit isn’t a zoo, although it’s licensed as such, but rather something called The Neon Jungle. Inside the Plaza Mayor mall, people can get face-to-face, up-close-and-very-personal with baby lions, tigers and bears. Cubs, that is, not the full-grown specimens with which only fools and guys named Mike Tyson try to wrestle.

In a story reported by local ABC affiliate KOCO News 5, video clips showed Neon Jungle owner-operator Jeff Lowe, rolling around with several tiger and lion cubs, who were behaving, well, like oversized kittens that they are.

At this point in time.

Of course, any activities involving big cats in captivity triggers concern, and the Oklahoma City Animal Welfare agency responded to consumer complaints about the exhibit. Lowe responded by stating that he is licensed and inspected.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” Lowe told KOCO 5 News. “We have the same federal license that governs the OKC Zoo.

What he didn’t mention is that is costs $25 for people to spend a few minutes with one of the Neon Jungle’s cubs, while adding that the residual benefits of such encounters could be significant.

“If you can put a baby tiger in somebody’s arms,” he said, “maybe that’ll stick, and maybe some of these kids will want to become vets.

“We care more about the animals than we do money.”

Nice try, Jeff — who by the way, couldn’t appear on camera because when KOCO 5 did the story, he was in Las Vegas planning to open another Neon Jungle, presumably not in some Sin City shopping mall, however.


It’s all about the money. It’s always about the money, so why pretend otherwise?

Here’s the concern though. While Lowe’s exhibit itself may not constitute animal abuse, questions need to be asked about how and where he sources those cuddly cubs. And what happens to them after the mall closes for business each day. And most importantly, what happens when said cuddly babies reach five feet long, weigh several hundred pounds and are genetically programmed to inflict carnivorous carnage on any other edible species within range of their four-inch claws?

Are they sold off to “exotic animal aficionados?” Last I heard, Mike Tyson was flat broke.

Are they shipped off to zoos somewhere, which may or may not be properly equipped to provide suitable care?

And most importantly, is Lowe running a breeding operation to supply his Neon Jungles? That would definitely mandate an investigation.

So is his operation legal? Yes, it appears to be. But is it ethical? That’s a tougher question.

As I stated at the top of this column, this is a story that requires thoughtful analysis.

Proceed on your own with that exercise. 


The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator