Netflix’s wildly popular “Tiger King” documentary series has been progressively sweeping the nation since it first aired on March 20. As an outrageous, binge-worthy drama released when self-isolation and uncertainty were spreading around the world, the show certainly came at the right time to provide an escape from the news. Overnight, it seemed, conversations that didn’t revolve around the coronavirus or Joe Exotic were hard to come by. Photos of celebrities who’d visited the zoos were flooding the internet, Joe Exotic’s power-ballads were hitting it big on Spotify and even President Donald Trump was fielding questions about the gun-toting zookeeper during press briefings.

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While the eccentric documentary reveals some disturbing truths about the enigmatic underworld it portrays, the show’s colorful characters tend to overshadow serious animal welfare issues. The dizzying murder-mystery component camouflages animal cruelty behind a jaw-dropping “you have to see it to believe it” drama. Now that the initial buzz of the show has started to die down, animal conservationists are begging the public to take a closer look at what the series failed to address: why, and how, these types of animal “sanctuaries” are legal in the United States.

Related: Bronx Zoo tiger tests positive for coronavirus

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) believes that the illegal wildlife trade presents the most substantial incentive for exotic animal breeding and estimates that a vast majority of the captive tigers in the U.S. are living inside people’s backyards, roadside attractions and private breeding facilities.

“Tigers should not be kept or bred for entertainment or trade in their parts and products,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy for WWF USA. “As a leader in promoting the conservation of tigers globally, the United States has a responsibility to manage the staggering 5,000 estimated captive tigers within its own borders.” The tigers remaining in the wild currently number around 3,900 and are continuing to be threatened due to poaching, illegal trade and habitat loss.

Surprisingly, only an estimated 6% of the captive tiger population in the U.S. live inside zoos and facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Because tigers in the United States are regulated by a combination of federal, state and local laws, there is no single government agency monitoring the location, ownership or sales of the tigers or what happens to their parts when they die. According to Henry, any supply of tiger parts into the black market stimulates trade and customer demand, posing additional risks to the wild tiger population.

sad-faced tiger looking at camera

Tiger abuse in the U.S. was on the radar well before Netflix aired “Tiger King.” In 2006, Joe Exotic’s GW Exotic Animal Park was fined $25,000 by the USDA for not providing adequate veterinary care or sufficient staff. Back in 2011, the Humane Society put an investigator undercover as an animal caretaker inside the park for about four months. They found hundreds of animals caged in barren conditions, cared for by workers with little-to-no experience and tiger cubs that were “punched, dragged, and hit with whips.” During that time, GW Exotic Animal Park was under investigation by the USDA for the deaths of 23 tiger cubs between 2009 and 2010.

Even Emmy Award-winning comedian and political commentator John Oliver recently recalled learning about Joe Exotic in 2016. “Our researcher went back through his notes and did say, ‘It seems like the park he’s running is a little bit dangerous, we may not want to hold hands too closely with this, “ Oliver said. “Plus he started ranting about a woman named Carole.’”

For the places that make their money from public encounters with tigers, continuous breeding is key in maintaining a constant supply of cubs for entertaining guests. Because of this, tigers are often inbred, causing birth defects and health issues that make them unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild. Most of the privately owned tigers in the U.S. are of mixed or unknown lineage, making them unable to participate in legitimate captive-breeding efforts in accredited zoos and institutions as well.

“Facilities like Joe Exotic’s and Doc Antle’s masquerade as rescue or conservation operations, but in fact they breed tigers and subject the cubs, who are torn from their mothers immediately after birth, to stress and abuse,” said Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and the CEO of Humane Society International. “After a few months, when the cubs are too large for close encounters with the public and the opportunity for profit is over, the cubs are caged, sold into the pet trade or die. This cycle of breeding for temporary use leads to a surplus of unwanted animals who languish in horrible conditions.”

tiger cub sitting on a log

When it comes to ethical animal sanctuaries, the leading authority is the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). This accrediting organization requires sanctuaries to meet animal-welfare standards exceeding the federal Animal Welfare Act minimum. National Geographic also outlines several things to look for when participating in wildlife tourism.

According to the GFAS, sanctuaries must provide lifetime care for abused, injured or abandoned animals, and rehabilitation or rescue centers are meant to provide temporary care with the goal of either releasing animals back into the wild or placing them in permanent care. To be accredited in the AZA, the leading non-profit organization connected to zoos and aquariums in terms of conservation, companies must go through a rigorous application process. Both the AZA and the GFAS provide lists of accredited facilities on their websites.

Since the documentary was filmed, 39 of Joe Exotic’s tigers have been rescued and are now living peacefully inside The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado (you can see a video of the tigers’ new living conditions here). WWF and the Humane Society are continuing to call for greater supervision and protection of captive tigers with the introduction of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The act and its accompanying bill prohibiting cub petting are scheduled to be voted on by the end of the year.

One could argue that “Tiger King” inspired viewership in ways that a more deliberate, expose-style documentary simply could not accomplish. Though the more severe components of the documentary have been masked by a barrage of memes and Twitter-fueled jokes, the ones who suffered the most in this human drama were actually the animals. Hopefully, what begins to come out of “Tiger King” will be the public’s refusal to let spectacle overpower mindfulness and that we all learn to see beyond the flashy images to realize that animal abuse is wrong — no matter how captivating the abusers are.

Via National Geographic and World Wildlife Fund

Images via Pixabay