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Mall Abuse

Just past the Olive Garden were animals that PETA said were treated worse than mall rats.

For the past three years, shoppers have visited the Metro North Mall for standard items such as athletic shoes, department store garments, greasy food-court fare — and photos with wild animals that traditionally roam African savannas.

For $10, shoppers could snap a photo while cuddling with bear cubs, baby tigers and juvenile lions that were kept in cages in the mall corridor several times a year. (No Topsy's, though — everybody knows that wild animals hate buttered popcorn.)

The herd became mall rats thanks to self-described endangered animal sanctuary G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park of Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Owner Joe Schreibvogel, otherwise known as "Joe Exotic," claimed that the beasts were rescued from "tortured situations." Mr. Exotic's employees told shoppers that money collected from the midday magic show and the price visitors paid to get their pictures taken with the little furballs helped pay for the rehabilitation of the traumatized animals.

Yeah, well, maybe not so much.

In April, representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent Metro North Marketing Director Robin Cumbo a video that claimed to document abuse from within G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park. The group had sent an undercover operative to the Oklahoma facility last year and alleged that it found baby tigers beaten with rifle butts, a lion left untreated after a tiger tore off part of its leg, and primates given lit cigarettes. And everybody knows that primates only smoke when they drink.

The video was backed up by a federal complaint that led to G.W. Exotic paying a $25,000 fine and agreeing to an 18-month probation starting in January 2006. In that case, federal regulators charged that G.W. Exotic employees verbally abused inspectors, housed animals in shacks made of concrete blocks and plywood, and stored food in a broken freezer spattered with blood and teeming with maggots. No word on whether the animals also had to eat at the mall food court.

Cumbo says she and the mall's general manager, Michael Chase, were shocked by PETA's information. Chase agreed to ban Joe Exotic and his traveling troupe of tortured pets.

Metro North is actually ahead of the pro-animal curve, PETA reports. The group has asked 200 malls to ban Joe Exotic's act, but only three have complied.

Schreibvogel hasn't taken kindly to PETA's crusade. His park's Web site features a number of run-on diatribes that accuse the animal-rights group of "helping to finance murder of innocent animals, arson of people's buildings, nudity, sex and drugs." (These messages share space on the site with a portrait of the goatee-sporting Schreibvogel clutching a tiger cub so close that it could rip out his earrings and nibble the long blond hair under his cowboy hat.) His poor grasp of punctuation, though, hasn't kept him from sending out his own appeal to Midwest malls in a letter mailed last week, which included this warning: "[PETA] want us all to become vegetarians and kill all the animals in cages."

As for Metro North's betrayal, Schreibvogel had only one thing to say when contacted by the Department of Burnt Ends.

"The only comment I have is that the manager is just ignorant for falling to PETA's crap, and I'm glad he [Chase] chose to elect to support an organization that thinks Timothy McVeigh is a hero instead of somebody who's saving animals," the indignant caretaker said.

Last week, Cumbo got another PETA package in the mail. This one included a plaque, recognizing Metro North as one of a dozen recipients of PETA's Compassionate Business Award.

Here's hoping she'll hang it right next to Orange Julius.

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