Joe Exotic, the Tiger King in the hit Netflix series, made a name for himself in the world of big cats. But Exotic briefly dabbled in wolves after buying dozens of wolf-dog hybrids from a Lakeville-area petting zoo — and the experience apparently convinced him to stick with felines.

“It was very clear he didn’t like having the wolves, that they were annoying him and he couldn’t take proper care of them,” said Christopher Berry, a staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Exotic got the animals in 2018 after a state appellate judge ordered Terri Petter, owner of the checkered petting zoo called Fur-Ever Wild, to get rid of all but one of her wolf-dog hybrids because they violated zoning ordinances in Eureka Township in Dakota County.

Berry, whose animal rights organization has sued Petter, said Exotic posted on social media that he had acquired 28 wolves around the same time. He was also selling four wolf pups online.

But Exotic soon realized that caring for wolves is different from tigers, Berry said. The wolves were said to be “running amok” at Exotic’s Oklahoma property and digging out of their enclosure.

Berry sent Exotic a letter telling him that selling or transferring the animals across state lines without a permit was a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Exotic called him, Berry said, and launched into “a profanity-laced tirade for several minutes.”

It ended with Exotic agreeing to surrender the wolves to Lockwood Animal Rescue Center (LARC) in California. Exotic gave LARC 25 of the 28 wolves, saying he couldn’t account for two of them and that one had died of an infection.

LARC staffers, including co-founder Matt Simmons, picked up the animals at Exotic’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. That trip was featured on a 2018 Animal Planet series called Wolves and Warriors, about combat veterans rescuing and caring for wolves and wolf hybrids as a form of therapy.

Exotic, with his bleached-blond mullet and mirrored sunglasses, shows up when Simmons arrives.

“We got a phone call from a lady in Minnesota and she had over 20 wolves and she needed to get rid of them by Tuesday,” Exotic says on the show. “We ended up with something like 26 wolves that I didn’t need.”

Simmons says on camera that sending the wolves to Exotic was “just another example of Fur-Ever Wild’s poor decisionmaking … send[ing] 26 gray wolves from the frozen tundra of Minnesota to the 90-degree heat of Oklahoma.”

Simmons adds that Exotic didn’t have the experience to care for wolves. Sending the wolves to California was “a good move” for both him and LARC, Exotic says. The episode ends with four of the wolves running into their new home.

The animals still live in California, Berry said Tuesday, adding that the tale offers a broader lesson.

“We’re happy [the wolves are] out of the system of exploitation,” Berry said. “Breeding animals and exploiting them for profit is wrong.”

Petter declined to answer questions Tuesday about where her animals ended up. But DNR reports show she sold 13 wolves in April and May 2018 to Lee Greenly of Sandstone, Minn. Greenly pleaded guilty in 2006 to two felony counts of aiding another hunter in killing bears at baiting stations he maintained illegally at Sandstone National Wildlife Refuge.

As part of that case, country star Troy Lee Gentry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for falsely registering as wild a trophy bear that Greenly kept in a 3-acre enclosure and that Gentry had paid to shoot.

Lawsuit settled

The ALDF and LARC filed a federal lawsuit against Fur-Ever Wild in 2017, seeking an injunction to prevent Petter from keeping wolves. The suit alleged that she bred wolf hybrids and killed them as adults to sell their fur, in violation of the Endangered Species Act protecting gray wolves.

The suit was settled in December, with Petter agreeing not to kill gray wolves or gray wolf hybrids or sell their parts for five years or as long as they are listed as threatened or endangered, whichever period is shorter.

Petter, who has always maintained her innocence, said she never mistreated her animals or killed them to sell their parts, and said she had no problem agreeing to the terms.

A key document in the case was a 2012 deposition in which Petter discussed skinning animals, including wolves, and selling their pelts. She has since said she only pelted wolves that died naturally.

It’s not clear whether the Farm, an attraction Petter opened after Fur-Ever Wild, is operating. It featured pigs, miniature horses, cows and deer.