I-Team: Nevada’s troubled connection to Joe Exotic

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PAHRUMP, NEV. (KLAS) — The hit documentary series “Tiger King” is a wild ride filled with troubled characters, but it has helped focus public attention on the underground trade in exotic animals. The I-Team discovered that the star of the show, Joe Exotic, did a lot of business here in Nevada.

“Tiger King” focused mostly on the menagerie of soap opera characters surrounding the owner of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma. But it also touched on the shady network of those who deal in big cats, including lions and tigers.

One of the most notorious of those is Karl Mitchell of Pahrump. Mitchell has been cited dozens of times for violating the most basic animal care standards. He had his license revoked by the federal government but still manages to make money off of the animals he keeps in his backyard.

Karl Mitchell (KLAS)

“I’m always appalled whenever Karl Mitchell has anything with a heartbeat,” said animal welfare activist Linda Faso, “because of his history of neglect and abuse.”

Faso has shadowed Karl Mitchell for decades, and so has the I-Team. Including documenting Mitchell’s multiple arrests and alleged acts of animal cruelty. Now, there is evidence linking Mitchell to the equally notorious Joe Exotic.

The exotic animal business leads to big money being exchanged, often under the table. But for the animals, advocates say it’s a life of misery.

“Nevada has been a hotbed for the exotic animal trade for many years,” Animal Welfare Action CEO Wayne Pacelle said. “It’s astonishing that people have a 300, 400, 500 pound carnivore as a pet, that people breed these animals just so kids or adults can hold them for a few minutes, and they do not care what happens to those animals for the rest of their lives.”

As far back as a 1996 interview by the I-Team, Karl Mitchell felt he’d been unfairly targeted by the government, police, animal welfare groups, and the media.

Mitchell has moved from place to place in Nye County over the last 25 years, but there are common threads. He’s always got a caged menagerie of exotic animals, in particular big cats, in facilities that failed to meet even the bare minimum standards.

His current home has trespassing signs posted, similar to previous homes, that target government agents of any kind. His animosity toward federal inspectors isn’t new.

Over the years Linda Faso has closely followed Mitchell’s activities. Mitchell not only has a long criminal history, with more than a dozen arrests in Nevada, but a reputation throughout the world of animal handlers.

He was arrested in California for trying to run over a pair of state game agents. According to one of his former wives, Kari Bagnell, he was banned from working on Hollywood sets because of animal cruelty. Mitchell was accused of breaking her ribs. Bagnall said, “He threatened to hunt me down. I’m worried he will kill me.”

Mitchell’s reputation eventually made it into the Las Vegas Valley. Tiger owner and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson hired and then fired Mitchell. On the set of a Super Dave Osbourne TV shoot, hair stylist Katie Taylor claims Mitchell “started beating this chimpanzee. We were like, what are you doing? He said that’s how I get him to do what I want.”

The Pahrump valley is home to many backyard exotic animals, but most follow the law. Mitchell stands out in this crowd. USDA inspectors have issued dozens of citations to Mitchell for various violations, including using tiny filthy cages and for not having adequate food and water.

Mitchell’s license to exhibit animals was permanently revoked in 2001. Mitchell went to prison three years later for stealing from Nye County. This was after the county hired him as its animal control officer.

When he got out of prison, he acquired a new batch of big cats, purchasing some of them from a now-famous operation in Oklahoma run by none other than Joe Exotic himself. According to federal court documents filed by Nye County, Mitchell has continued to flaunt the law by exhibiting his animals.

“He has disregarded numerous USDA cease and desist orders. He has disregarded numerous orders for him to pay civil penalties, and the USDA has not done anything to follow up on its own orders,” according to animal welfare activist Carney Nasser. “The Department of Justice has not done anything yet to follow up on his own apparent trafficking of tigers from Oklahoma.”

Nasser was instrumental in getting federal agents to finally take a hard look at Joe Exotic. Records show Mitchell obtained at least five animals from Joe Exotic’s roadside zoo as recently as 2018. In the group, two of them were baby tigers.

Nye County says Mitchell currently has close to a dozen tigers in the compound he uses. Mitchell is now suing Nye County in federal court to block the removal of his tigers. Mitchell says the cats are his therapy animals to help with his PTSD.

Karl Mitchell declined to comment to the I-Team for this story.

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