By Sarika Khanwilkar
People cannot stop talking about the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, which is a sensationalized narrative that pits narcissistic tiger breeders and owners against seemingly hypocritical animal rights activists. The internet ignited with Tiger King themed memes because of the widespread viewership and the outlandish characters, mainly Joseph Maldonoda-Passage (better known as Joe Exotic), Kevin ‘Doc’ Antle, and Carole Baskin (of Big Cat Rescue).
Within a week of the release, Tiger King’s own characters, conservation organizations, and major news outlets responded to the series and Tiger King merchandise was available online. After its release more than a month ago, new impacts of the series are still emerging. A day after the opening of Joe Exotic’s zoo on May 2nd, now owned by Jeff Lowe and re-branded to Tiger King Zoo, huge crowds flocked to visit the place where captive tigers are bred, exhibited, and abused. Visitors and zoo staff have been photographed in obvious disregard for public health guidelines, in place to protect people from spreading COVID-19. Given that tigers can become infected with the virus, any tiger interacting with potentially infected or asymptomatic people is placed in danger. The opening of Tiger King Zoo reaffirms that profit has and will always take precedence over the health and safety of tigers in roadside zoos.
Tiger King was a success by every single commercial measure. However, Tiger King has committed an injustice to tiger (Panthera tigris) conservation and efforts to stop illegitimate breeding and ownership of tigers in the US. The series leaves out critical information about tiger breeding operations like those run by Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle, misrepresents the work of Big Cat Rescue, downplays the importance of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, and fails to provide a global context for the problems associated with captive tigers. Tiger King left out the story of tigers.
As other articles have pointed out, Tiger King fails to address animal abuse, even when it was captured on camera. In a way, this might be the best thing the series did. Instead of an all-knowing figurehead discussing why it’s bad to take a newborn tiger cub away from a mother or unnatural to keep so many tigers together, Tiger King showed it. Tiger King slyly integrated widespread animal mistreatment into a mysterious murder and conspiracy plot and allowed viewers to come to their own conclusions about what was shown. Interestingly, many Tiger King viewers have expressed sympathy for Joe Exotic despite Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle each having long histories of animal welfare violations, facts that Tiger King never acknowledges.
While Tiger King showed the abuse of tigers, the ethics involved in exploiting captive tigers for profit was hidden from sight and skewed. Joe Exotic sold tiger cubs for cash outside his home state of Oklahoma and made these transactions appear as donations on falsified paperwork, which exempted the activity from certain oversight. He was under federal investigation for these activities before he attempted to hire two people to kill Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and his arch nemesis. Joe Exotic’s murder plots overshadowed his illegal wildlife trafficking.
Selling cubs and profiting from tiger tourism without contributing to conservation like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle happens at roadside zoos. Tiger King overlooks important distinctions between these types of businesses and accredited zoos and animal sanctuaries. These differences are critical to understand where tigers in captivity are harmful or helpful to tiger conservation. There is an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 captive tigers in the US, more double the number of tigers left in the wild. In the US, tigers in zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are deemed valuable to conservation since there is a scientific basis behind breeding of such individuals – namely, maximizing genetic diversity. These tigers are a last resort for conservation in case we lose our wild tigers and need to start a reintroduction program. Unfortunately, less than 300 of the tigers held in captivity in the US are found in AZA-accredited zoos.
The majority of captive tigers in the US are owned by private households, and breeders like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle provide a seemingly endless supply of cubs to these owners from their roadside zoos. The tigers they breed have no value to conservation and their commercial operations undermine efforts to conserve wild tigers. Tigers bred by Joe Exotics or ‘Doc’ Antle are generic tigers, meaning they aren’t of any particular tiger subspecies. For example, a generic tiger might be a mix of a Bengal tiger (Tigris panthera panthera) and a Sumatran tiger (Tigris panthera sumatrae), and they will never contribute to reintroduction efforts. Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle claim to help save wild tigers by breeding generic tigers in an attempt to conceal their purely commercial operations. In misrepresenting how their work benefits wild tigers, Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle displace money away from legitimate tiger conservation. Tiger King makes no attempt to refute claims that roadside zoos aid tiger conservation, leaving viewers with the inability to distinguish between captive tiger programs for profit or conservation.
The magnitude of tigers within private households in the US has resulted in a surplus of unwanted tigers. Although tiger cubs can be purchased for as little as $2,000, they can cost more than $10,000 per year to feed and care for when fully grown, and then can no longer be taken care of. Unwanted pets are lucky to find placement at a non-exploitative animal sanctuary, such as Big Cat Rescue, accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Accredited animal sanctuaries were created and are needed because of irresponsible pet tiger owners.
Tony, a tiger exhibited at the Tiger Truck Stop in Louisiana, photographed in 2016 by Sarika Khanwilkar.
Tiger King falsely equates the employment practices and animal conditions at Big Cat Rescue with those at Joe Exotic’s and ‘Doc’ Antle’s roadside zoos, in an attempt to skew the motives of the animal sanctuary. Volunteers at non-profits are common, and Big Cat Rescue works for tiger conservation. Big Cat Rescue has never faced an animal welfare violation and supports legislation that would end the unnecessary breeding and ownership of tigers in the US. Tiger King distorts the critical role that Big Cat Rescue plays in addressing and resolving the problem of captive tigers in the US and neglects important facts that distinguish and place animal sanctuaries within legitimate and commercial captivity. This lack of clarity damages accredited institutions and provides no guidance for people who want to ethically visit a tiger in captivity.
Besides the few unwanted tigers who go to an accredited sanctuary, we don’t know where privately-owned tigers in the US go when they can no longer be cared for or die. For commercial exhibitors like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle, a tiger cub is only profitable between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks, when cubs are permitted to interact with the public. Cubs that cannot interact with the public are an expense and this is one of the reasons Joe Exotic shot five of his tigers. Many US states lack laws specific to the disposal of dead tigers and we don’t know where tigers that are no longer wanted by breeders or owners go.
Tiger skin and bones are valued at $20,000 and $7,000 on the illegal wildlife market, respectively. Seizures of illegally traded tigers and tiger parts around the world have increased since 2002. The demand for tiger parts drives poaching, which is a primary threat to the survival of wild tigers. America’s endless supply of legal captive tigers could potentially supply parts to this bourgeoning illegal market. For example, in 2018, Arongkron Malasukum was sentenced to prison for selling and sending tiger skulls purchased in the US to Thailand. From 2015 to 2016, he exported 68 packages of tiger and lion skulls, claws, and other parts (valued over $150,000) from the US. Overall, law enforcement data to catch the leakage of legal tigers into the illegal trade is limited. The uncertainty surrounding this leakage requires us to take a precautionary approach to tiger breeding and ownership in the US. Tiger King makes no attempt at communicating the relationship between captive tigers in America and the demand for tigers in illegal markets.
A cohesive strategy towards managing the US captive tiger population is needed. There is currently no federal law that prohibits the private ownership of tigers and laws at state and local levels vary widely. Tiger King includes a few scenes showing Carole Baskin advocating for the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban tiger breeding, pet tiger ownership, and public cub handling. The bill has been introduced in the US Congress and there is a high change it will be voted on this year but, it needs more support from the public and political leaders. Tiger King missed the opportunity to motivate viewers towards action to help secure the Big Cat Public Safety Act as a law by downplaying its benefits and urgency. In addition, the representation of Big Cat Rescue and portrayal of Carole Baskin was highly misogynistic, leading viewers to question her and her organizations integrity and motives. Viewers were unlikely to understand the importance of the Big Cat Public Safety Act because Tiger King discredited those who were and are the bills greatest champions.
In what might be the gravest oversight of Tiger King, we rarely hear about wild tigers or how wild tigers are impacted by captive tigers. The future of wild tigers is uncertain and tigers have undergone massive population declines in the wild, currently occupying only 7% of their former range. The global tiger population is 3,159.
Captivity is the one place where tiger populations are undoubtedly increasing. Tigers are held in captivity and intensively bred in farms around the world to the detriment of wild tigers. China began farming tigers in the 1990’s. Currently, China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam operate tiger farms, even though there is substantial scientific evidence that it poses a risk to wild tiger populations. Tiger farms have supplied the illegal demand for tiger parts. The argument for meeting the demand for tiger parts with captive tigers is that this captive supply displaces poaching pressure from wild tigers. However, consumers of tiger derivates, like tiger bone wine and medicinal products, prefer parts sourced from wild tigers and are willing to pay a premium price for wild-sourced products. Therefore, farming tigers undermines our efforts to conserve wild tigers by stimulating demand and poaching.
America’s political negotiations that attempt to persuade other countries to regulate their tiger farms in order to reduce illegal tiger trafficking are hampered by America’s own captive tiger problem. America has the opportunity to be a global leader in phasing out captive tigers which have no benefit to wild tiger conservation, but has not done so. The global context of America’s captive tigers may have been out of Tiger King’s scope, yet it is imperative for viewers to understand the far-reaching consequences of private ownership and breeding of tigers in America.
Altogether, Tiger King fails miserably at delivering a message that will lead to conservation action. It glorified tiger ownership and raised visitor numbers at Joe Exotic’s former roadside zoo, and most likely others. Tiger King had the potential to bring the problem of tiger ownership in the US to the limelight but instead it twisted narratives and, ironically, left out tigers. By providing character-driven entertainment more appreciated by mainstream media, Tiger King has reached a wider audience than a more traditional conservation-oriented series. Nonetheless, filmmakers make no attempt to create an impact campaign with conservation organizations that might have helped address the inadequacies of the series. Now, conservationists, big cat specialists, zoos, and sanctuaries are all independently racing to capitalize on Tiger King’s success so the public can have a chance to hear expert opinion. We can thank Tiger King for opening up this topic of discussion but we shouldn’t tolerate the inability of Tiger King to communicate real conservation issues as an oversight. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction and our current epoch, the Anthropocene, is marked by human impacts to the planet. The filmmakers had a moral obligation to viewers and tigers to either share a more informed story or make an effort to supplement their docuseries with conservation efforts. Instead, they sold out by valuing entertainment over impactful storytelling.
Now, it is up to individuals to educate themselves and conservation organizations to correct the misguided narrative that Tiger King depicts. Addressing threats to the tiger’s survival involves reducing the demand for tiger parts to ease poaching pressure, securing habitat, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, and engaging with and empowering communities who live side by side with wild tigers. Tiger King inspired an international conversation on captive tigers but due to its shortcomings, it depends on you and me whether or not conservation will follow. To support the Big Cat Public Safety Act, go to www.bigcatact.com.
Bi-monthly updates from the Wild Tiger team with occasional guest blog posts and personal field updates from Sarika Khanwilkar.