An Oklahoma man who goes by the name “Joe Exotic” has been ordered to pay a Florida animal sanctuary nearly $1 million to resolve a two-year-old trademark infringement lawsuit.
Joe Schreibvogel, who also goes by the names “Aarron Alex” and “Cody Ryan,” was ordered to pay the seven-figure judgment Feb. 12 in federal court.
The suit involved Schreibvogel's use of logos and images that were very similar to those created and owned by the Florida animal park.
Schreibvogel, who has a film crew following him around these days, says he doesn't plan to pay a dime to Big Cat Rescue, the Florida sanctuary who filed suit against him and his various organizations in January 2011.
The one-time police chief of a small North Texas town said he is planning to leave the day-to-day supervision of the GW Exotic Animal Park, which his parents founded more than a decade ago in Wynnewood.
He said the high profile he's attained since becoming an outspoken critic of those who seek to do away with laws allowing private individuals to own exotic animals has opened up “all kinds of things up for me.”
“I'm going Hollywood,” Schreibvogel said. “They made me a star.”
During a recent interview with The Oklahoman, Schreibvogel said the court ruling in favor of Big Cat Rescue was more “dirty politics” than a fair legal battle.
The 49-year-old claims a federal judge didn't give his legal team enough time to proceed at a trial, so the case was essentially settled.
Frank Jakes, an attorney representing Big Cat Rescue, said Schreibvogel simply “gave up.”
“Obviously, it's dirty pool,” Schreibvogel said. “I let her get her judgment, (the park will) file bankruptcy and the hell with it.”
Schreibvogel said the entity that leased the land where his animal park is located – the GW Exotic Memorial Animal Foundation – will file bankruptcy in the coming days. The park remains open and won't change, at least from the public's perspective, he said.
“The park is under a new corporation,” Schreibvogel said. “But they're my animals ... I'm still licensed to exhibit.
“By law, I do not have to be a (business) to exhibit.”
Allegations of case
In the suit, attorneys for Big Cat Rescue alleged that Schreibvogel and his associates launched a “counter-campaign of disinformation, misinformation and disparagement” aimed at damaging the credibility of the organization.
The sanctuary's lawyers wrote in a complaint that Schreibvogel used a logo and other artistic elements “confusingly similar” to materials trademarked by Big Cat Rescue.
Jakes said Big Cat Rescue's mission, at least one of the central ones, is to eliminate unnecessary breeding of exotic animals, which can include tigers, lions, bears and other large beasts.
“My client ... also has a mission of trying to prevent abuse ... that comes from unfettered breeding of exotic animals,” Jakes said. “Private ownership is an issue as well, because of the abuse that comes with that.”
As part of their mission, Jakes said Big Cat Rescue leaders would speak out against those who “breed cats incessantly, as Mr. Schreibvogel does.”
Jakes said Schreibvogel is known for performing magic shows and bringing tiger cubs to public places in order to generate income.
“He makes money by having people pet them and take their pictures with them,” he said. “My client feels that's an abusive practice.”
Jakes said Schreibvogel “didn't like” the criticism from the sanctuary's leadership, most notably its founder, Carole Baskin.
“So, he decided he would get back at us, basically, by copying our name and posting all these terrible things about us on the Internet,” the attorney said. “That's basically the story.”
Schreibvogel admits that he and his colleagues did model a logo for Big Cat Rescue Entertainment after the Florida sanctuary's design. He said he didn't realize he was infringing on the organization's intellectual property.
“We thought we were in the clear,” he said. “We thought they only owned ‘Big Cat Rescue' with a cat jumping over it.”
Jakes said the Florida sanctuary's dealings with Schreibvogel will likely continue for some time.
“If the other party doesn't voluntary pay the judgment, you have to go and try and take it from them,” he said. “I suspect that's the next step.”
Schreibvogel's feud with Big Cat Rescue and its founder, Carole Baskin, is well documented.
The pair has been feuding for years, often publically, over their growing disconnect on what's best for exotic animals.
Baskin, whose husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1997, is known in the realm of exotic animals as a “master marketer,” Schreibvogel said.
He said Baskin and her “multimillion dollar” organization have targeted him “because I stand up to them.”
“I do what I do ... the magic shows, the TV shows ... I do it for the animals,” Schreibvogel said.
Schreibvogel said the trademark lawsuit filed against him is an attempt to “drain me, financially.”
“It didn't work,” he said. “They can sue ‘til the cows come home, but they have no control over my license. Only the federal government can take my license, and only if I violate their laws.”
In the meantime, “Joe Exotic” has a new career: Glamour model.
Indeed, after posting some provocative photos of himself on the “Joe Exotic” Facebook page, Schreibvogel claims that magazines, including Playgirl, have shown strong interest in him.
“It's funny,” he says. “I mean, with all the negative energy they focused on me, they made me famous.”