“Tiger King,” the Netflix docu-series it seems no one can stop talking about, is introducing huge numbers of viewers to a world most people aren’t familiar with ― the seedy underbelly of America’s captive tiger trade.
The seven-episode series follows Joe Exotic, the former proprietor of a private Oklahoma zoo, and his long feud and legal battle with Carole Baskin, who runs a Florida wildlife sanctuary. The story involves murder, organized crime, at least one alleged cult ― and the many animals caught in the middle.
But wildlife experts have found it frustrating that throughout the series, the issue of rampant animal abuse often takes a backseat to the over-the-top human personalities.
“I fear that people will remember it as a show about tigers, yet will have learned almost nothing about one of the world’s most imperiled species,” Dr. John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program director for the global wild cat conservation nonprofit Panthera, told HuffPost.
In general, experts told HuffPost, they wished “Tiger King” offered more factual information on a range of animal welfare and conservation issues that come up in the series, especially since they’re so integral to the plot. Here are some of the things they would have liked “Tiger King” to explain more.
Joe Exotic at his zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, in 2013.
In “Tiger King,” people paying money to pet lion and tiger cubs and take photos with them is a major source of income for Joe Exotic and other private zookeepers. The series touches on allegations that at least one zookeeper, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, kills cubs when they get too big (which he denies) and shows a jarring scene of Exotic dragging a newborn cub away from her mother. But even so, for a show in which cub petting is so crucial, it doesn’t explore all aspects of why the practice is inherently cruel.
“It requires that babies are taken from their mothers and forced into human lifestyles,” Imogene Cancellare, a conservation biologist whose Twitter thread on “Tiger King” went viral earlier this week, said in an email. “Cubs need a LOT of sleep, just like domestic puppies and kittens, and they need access to milk around the clock. Cubs in pay-to-pet operations are chronically exhausted, overstimulated from being passed around to humans, and are often malnourished. Diarrhea is common, as these babies are stressed and missing the care of their mothers.”
While tigers can come to recognize individual people and even “crave interaction” with them, Cancellare stressed that’s “not an acceptable reason” to breed cubs, take them from their mothers and force them into an unnatural life.
“Humans are not an appropriate substitute for a tiger mother, and none of what you see in ‘Tiger King’ is based on natural behavior and tiger ecology,” she said.
A tiger in an enclosure at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, the zoo formerly owned by Joe Exotic and now run by Jeff Lowe, in February 2019.
Exotic, along with multiple other private zookeepers in the series, claimed to be helping the conservation of endangered species by breeding them. Cancellare wishes the series had made it clear that this argument doesn’t hold up.
“The only breeding that contributes to conservation efforts are those under expert-managed Species Survival Plans, which are species-specific programs that safeguard captive populations in case free-ranging populations disappear,” she said. “These programs trace genetic health, pedigree, and ensure no hybridization, inbreeding, or crossing of subspecies.”
But carelessly breeding tigers ― combining subspecies that are totally distinct in the wild, crossing totally different species to create creatures like “ligers” or intentionally inbreeding animals to produce white tigers ― is useless for conservation and only adds to the surplus of captive tigers already in the United States.
Tigers in their enclosures at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, the zoo formerly run by Joe Exotic and now operated by Jeff Lowe, in February 2019.
Casual Animal Mistreatment
There are also instances of animal mistreatment throughout “Tiger King” that are never identified as such and that a casual viewer might not recognize as cruelty. Carnivore ecologist Tyus D. Williams pointed to scenes showing feeding time at Exotic’s zoo, where many tigers were corralled into a small space together to get their meal ― a practice he called “horribly dangerous.”
“Tigers are solitary animals and highly territorial,” Williams said. Putting so many together and forcing them to compete over food is “asking for tigers to get fatally injured.”
And using scenes like this as “B-footage,” as Cancellare put it, makes it harder for laypeople to figure out what’s ethical in any zoos they visit.
Responsible Zoos And Sanctuaries
Most viewers can probably tell that Exotic wasn’t exactly running a top-notch operation, but the show doesn’t provide much information on how to identify more responsible zoos or sanctuaries.
“Please do your research on any facility that advertises themselves as a sanctuary or zoo before you visit them,” Ellie Armstrong, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate studying big cat genomics and the science adviser for nonprofit Tigers in America, said in an email.
She said some of the “largest red flags” are visitor “interaction with cubs” or adult animals, “the presence of many cubs,” and “cages that are too small, not constructed properly, or filled with debris.”
A sign advertising baby tigers at the entrance of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park on Feb. 9, 2019.
When it comes to identifying zoos or sanctuaries that operate ethically, Cancellare suggested looking for organizations that are accredited by either the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Cancellare also emphasized that “being misinformed does not make you a villain” and people who have supported unethical zoos, or paid to play or take photos with cubs, shouldn’t be ashamed about what they unknowingly did wrong. Instead, she said, they should recognize that “knowledge is power.”
“[‘Tiger King’] should embolden us to have conversations about animal welfare, the power of social media, and changing our perspectives to support meaningful action for captive and free-ranging wildlife,” she said.
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