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Jeff Lowe of ‘Tiger King’ wanted attraction in downtown Las Vegas

Updated March 30, 2020 - 3:33 pm

Jeff Lowe, a central figure in the Netflix documentary phenomenon “Tiger King,” wanted to do business with the last Las Vegas Strip entertainer to use wild tigers in his act.

Dirk Arthur said no.

Lowe wanted to open this business at Pawn Plaza, owned by Rick Harrison of “Pawn Stars.”

Harrison said no, too.

That was in June 2017, as Lowe was scratching around the Pawn Plaza property, seeking to cash in on his adorable baby liger and pet tiger cub. Lowe sought a partnership with Arthur for what was billed as an educational/entertainment attraction, where tourists could have photos taken with these exotic creatures.

For the uninitiated, Lowe has become nationally famous/infamous in the seven-part “Tiger King” odyssey, which at this writing remains the No. 1 series on Netflix. The documentary centers on the long-running feud between the stridently flamboyant Joseph Maldonado-Passage (known in the series as Joe Exotic), owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma; and Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin.

The series careens through a labyrinth of astonishing subplots, among them Exotic’s polygamist same-sex marriage and farcical run for governor of Oklahoma. Finally, Exotic is arrested and indicted by the FBI for attempting to hire a hit man to murder Baskin. The Lowes — Jeff and Lauren — arrive midway through the project, with Jeff presented as an “angel” with resources to save Exotic’s faltering zoo.

In the series, Lowe is depicted as an entrepreneur out of South Carolina with suspect financial standing and questionable ethics. One illuminating disclosure: Lowe tools around the zoo in a Ferrari, even while falling behind on payments on the car. Las Vegas is shown as his playground, with obligatory footage of the Strip, and shots of him partying on the Fremont Street Experience and at Hakkasan Nightclub. Lowe is shown convincing Exotic to hand over zoo operations, while also helping federal authorities assemble a case against Exotic.

The space in Las Vegas that Lowe envisioned was to be called Tiger Encounter, located on the second level of Pawn Plaza, just across the parking lot from the line of tourists snaking into the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. The idea advanced to the point that Lowe’s wife, Lauren, posed with a tiger cub on Tiger Encounter promotional material. The Lowes and Arthur also took a tour of The Strat for possible sites. But their primary focus was to the north, at Pawn Plaza.

Arthur was a natural tie-in for such a concept, having headlined Las Vegas showrooms for more than three decades since debuting as a specialty act in “City Lights” at the Flamingo in 1985. Arthur most recently headlined with his half dozen exotic cats at the Westgate’s International Theater in 2016. He returned to the stage at the Westgate Cabaret from 2017-2018, but without the animals.

Arthur still cares for his big cats on his property in the southwest. Most recently he’s worked as a manager at Houdini’s magic shop at Circus Circus while restarting his stage career.

“I was open to ideas, sure, and Jeff saw you could make a lot of money with the cats in Las Vegas, where tourists could have their pictures taken with the babies,” Arthur says. “We looked at the units there, I did a bunch of research into the sanitation requirements and what permits we would need.”

Permits are vital in Arthur’s world. His career depends on legal compliance.

“What it came down to was, I would be able to house a few of the cats on my property as long as we were in strict accordance with Clark County use permits,” Arthur says. “There’s no way in a million years I would do it any other way.”

Arthur made that provision clear to Lowe.

“Then this guy started getting kind of crazy, he said, ‘I don’t need to get a permit to have a tiger; I can just bring one in,’ ” Arthur says. “I said, ‘You definitely need to have a permit to do this in Clark County. Trust me on this.’ ”

Lowe said via text Saturday that he had no interest in revisiting his time in Vegas: “We have talked to so many media outlets that we’re talked out at this time.” Earlier in the day, he and Lauren appeared on the Instagram version of “Lights Out With David Spade.”

Harrison, who is always seeking ways to expand the “Pawn Stars” empire, enlisted Pawn Plaza and Gold & Silver General Manager Andy Zimmerman to review Lowe’s concept. It took one meeting between Arthur, Zimmerman and the Lowes at Pawn Plaza to know the idea was stalled.

“I remember talking about it and thinking it sounded interesting, but once we were told it wasn’t going to work out by our contact (Arthur), we moved on to other interested tenants to fill the spaces,” says Harrison, who is more than happy with the tenant who eventually moved in to the space — the Rev. Scott Polek’s Chapels at the Pawn. There have been no permit concerns with the good reverend.

Unfazed, soon after cutting ties with Arthur, Lowe opened his own interactive tiger attraction in Las Vegas, The Jungle Bus. Lowe’s exotic animal experience, where he hauled tourists along the Strip so they could play with the cubs, is shown briefly in “Tiger King.”

Lowe also rented a home on Natalia Court near Tropical Parkway and Rainbow Boulevard in North Las Vegas, another business where guests could mingle with the cubs. The entire operation was halted in November 2017, when Lowe was arrested at his home by Clark County Animal Control officers for keeping and staging the animals without proper permits.

In a plea deal to avoid jail time, Lowe agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and surrender his tiger, liger and lemur (his court appearance, too, is featured in the documentary). Those animals, now adults, are being kept at a private exotic-animal habitat in Pahrump owned by Zuzana Kukol and Scott Shoemaker.

“They came to us very sick, with many problems, bloody diarrhea, urinary-tract infections, pancreatic problems. But they are healthy and happy now,” Kukol says. “We have all the proper licensing through the county. That’s why Animal Control asked us to keep them.”

Meantime, the Lowes have taken over G.W. Zoo operations, renaming the attraction the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park — and the place is still open even during the coronavirus outbreak — and are planning a new zoo, the Oklahoma Zoo, in Thackerville. But don’t expect any further business forays, or even pleasure trips, to Vegas.

According to city of Las Vegas’ marshal’s office documents, Lowe is a wanted man in Las Vegas with multiple warrants out for his arrest, having not paid his four $2,500 court-ordered fines. The marshal’s office notice warns, “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DETAIN THIS INDIVIDUAL, CONTACT YOUR LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY.”

Upon learning that information, Arthur, who has seen it all, said only, “I am not surprised.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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