WILMER, AL (WKRG) — The former owner of the Mobile Zoo has been arrested and charged with 28 counts of animal cruelty.
John Marks Hightower, 62, was booked into Mobile Metro Jail Thursday morning after being arrested by deputies. The Mobile County District Attorney’s Office filed charges after a search warrant was served at the zoo and Mobile County Animal Control and veterinarians assessed the condition of the animals remaining at the facility.
The Mobile Zoo, located in Wilmer, Alabama, was closed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November after numerous complaints of animals being mistreated. The most recent inspection found several cages with dried feces, an accumulation of pests in the animal enclosures, unstable den conditions and possible blood stains that were never cleaned up.
The zoo’s license was revoked and the business officially closed on November 10.
PETA had tried to get the roadside zoo shut down for years, stemming from those USDA reports that found many infractions.
Just last year, Joe, the movie-star chimp formerly housed at the facility, was transported to a haven facility after PETA put heavy pressure on animal officials to remove him from his small, isolated enclosure that was fenced in with tennis court fencing.
Joe also had no room to roam, but does now at the sanctuary he was transported to when the Mobile Zoo agreed to give him up before being forced to.
The zoo itself had more than 75 animals at its peaks ranging from bears, to tigers and lions as well as many monkeys and birds.
One of the most frequent citations the USDA marked the Mobile Zoo for was that only two paid employees took care of those 75-plus animals — Hightower as well as manager Angela Enders.
Enders worked all day cleaning cages, feeding animals and trying to make it all work, but even with the rare volunteer help, the USDA investigators found dirty enclosures, spoiled food and inadequate housing.
With closure imminent as recently as a year ago, Enders and fans of the zoo tried to organize T-shirt fundraisers and other events to try to bring enclosures and equipment up to regulation, but they were not able to raise enough money.
Instead, they subsisted with donations of food from local grocery stores, donated PVC pipe and more tennis court fencing and cinder blocks for enclosures.
Another repeated violation was that the USDA found rotted food in a refrigerator that had maintenance issues, and rotted meat in the enclosures with the lions and tigers.
The roadside zoo corrected as many things as they were able to each report, cleaning the cages and trying to build up enclosures, but ultimately with a short staff, they were forced to close down after their license was revoked late last year.
A new animal control investigation began in late February.
Since Hightower owned the animals, not all of them were immediately seized and taken, but this new arrest signals that the investigation into the facility found that conditions were not adequately improved for Hightower to keep the animals.
News 5 will have more on this story as we learn more.
The following are animals that have already been removed from the zoo property:
Since Animal Control Initial Investigation on February 21, 2017:
- Belgian Draft horse – euthanized by veterinarian due to severe conditions & inability to transport
- Paint Horse – sold / rehomed to private citizen (identity known, but not provided by Zoo staff)
- Shetland Pony – sold / rehomed to private citizen (identity known, but not provided by Zoo staff)
- (x3) Donkeys – sold / rehomed to private citizen (identity known, but not provided by Zoo staff))
- (x2) Rhesus Macaque monkeys – rehomed to a private citizen
- (x2) Ring-tailed Lemurs – rehomed to a private citizen
- American Alligator – removed by Wes Moore of Alligator Alley (Summerdale, AL)
- (x9) exotic Birds (parrots, macaws, cockatoo, conures) – confiscated by MCAC, fostered by South Alabama Caged Bird Society
- (x5) African spur-thighed Tortoises – confiscated by MCAC, fostered by Chaos & Critters Animal Rescue
The following are animals that have rescues or facilities waiting to remove them; waiting on legal paperwork or approval from the owner:
- (x3) American black bears – Wildlife Sanctuary (Colorado), waiting on veterinarian to sign off for approval to transport out of state
- (x2) Bobcats – Wildlife Sanctuary (Colorado) OR Big Cat Rescue (Tampa, FL), waiting on veterinarian to sign off for approval to transport out of state
- Serval – Big Cat Rescue (Tampa, FL)
- Ostrich – Wildlife Sanctuary (Colorado)
- Spectacled Caiman – Rainforest Adventures (Pigeon Forge, TN)
- Longhorn Steer – waiting on a buyer to come transport
- (x7) European Red Deer – waiting on veterinarian to sign off for approval to transport out of state
The following are animals with no current rescue or facility ready to accept at this time:
- (x3) Llamas
- (x2) European river Hogs
- Razorback hog
- Wolf Hybrid
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mentions an animal organization in Missouri that rehomed three tigers and two leopards. A representative said they had not taken any animals from the Mobile Zoo property.
UPDATE: March 21st, 2017
A county spokesman offered this explanation about the mix-up in which refuge certain animals were sent.
Correction: Three tigers and two leopards were moved from the Mobile Zoo to Lazy L Farms, an animal sanctuary in Perkinston, Mississippi. It was previously reported that the big cats were moved to the Lazy L Safari Park in Missouri. The move happened in mid-January before Mobile County Animal Control became involved in the placement of the zoo animals. There was a misunderstanding in the reporting of the sanctuary’s name from the zoo to Animal Control. Lazy L Farms in Mississippi is not open to the public.