This article contains spoilers for the Netflix docuseries Tiger King.
“Oh shit — have you watched Tiger King?”
The first text came a mere two days after Netflix gave birth to the now infamous documentary series on March 20th. A day later, another friend hit me up, “This Tiger King show is fucking wild. Also, your nightmare.” Movie stars started arguing over who would get which roles. Joe Exotic’s music videos resurfaced. An obscure Britney Spears VMAs connection was unearthed.
With so much intrigue, I had to watch Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. I’m glad I did, too. Not because I was eager to tweet about the chaotic/ accidental humor of it all. But because — at the risk of Joe Exotic, the polygamist, gun-loving, self-righteous tiger hoarder in Oklahoma; or Jeff Lowe, the swinging Las Vegas financier who took over his zoo, coming after me in a poorly-produced attack video — we need to talk about the tigers. The only “good guys” in all this. Those huge, sleek, elegant, creatures that the docuseries seems all too willing to ignore.
Because while this bonkers-but-true seven-part profile on Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, his equally inscrutable and possibly-mariticidal nemesis in Florida, is the exact tonic needed to distract Americans from the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t offer much insight into the lives on the animals in the title. Even after watching Tiger King start to finish, it’s tough to get a bead on the living conditions and overall livelihood of the big cats themselves. Instead, it’s the wacky-yet-toxic personal dynamics between exotic animal owners that gets all the screen time.
That approach works fine as escapism but it isn’t particularly effective at condemning the industry that it profiles. An industry that absolutely deserves to be condemned.
To me, the poor quality of life experienced by the tigers in Tiger King was beyond obvious within the first minute of the first episode. I’ve dedicated a significant part of my career to exposing wildlife abuses in the travel industry. I’ve sat in the jungles of Central America, fighting off parrot poachers using only a machete. I became a World Wildlife Fund Ambassador to step up my advocacy against the exotic pet trade. I’ve been a veterinary tech, an animal behaviorist, and a wildlife journalist. And I feel 100% convinced that people who keep tigers, wolves, and other exotic animals as pets are a unique kind of human — forged in the melting pot of too much disposable income, a lack of education in animal physiology, and inherent selfishness.
That’s why Tiger King is my nightmare. Watching the show means having to put aside the mostly-unmentioned suffering of the animals featured. It means watching a slew of memes more compassionate to a known animal abuser than the tigers he visibly exploits. And, worst of all, it means knowing that certain viewers were going to start searching “how to buy a tiger cub” before even seeing the final episode.
When Joe Exotic insists Carole Baskin is the insane one for accusing him of committing animal abuse, the series doesn’t question him. Because he is the series. But it damn sure should have. Though we only hear a few passing mentions of it, Joe was sentenced to 22 years for “violence against tigers.” As far back as 2011, the Humane Society of the United States documented GW Zoo’s tiger cubs being punched, dragged, and hit with whips, all after being “pulled from their mothers immediately after birth for public handling,” according to their investigation. Shouldn’t that be at least the b-story in this series? Wasn’t there room for it between the various “blowing shit up” and “meth” segments?
Handled well, this series entering the zeitgeist could have been the moment when Americans collectively began to question the private ownership of tigers. Instead, we’re starting GoFundMe’s for Joe Exotic. Seriously?
More than 20 states currently have comprehensive bans on the ownership of exotic pets and another 13 have partial bans. Meaning over half of the United States recognizes the wide range of problems that comes with allowing literally anybody to cage whatever species makes them feel tough or wealthy or cool. Most of the 5,000-10,000 tigers we’ve trapped in captivity in the U.S (compared to 4,000 tigers living naturally in the wild) are concentrated in private zoos in less-stringent states like Texas or South Carolina. States where private zoo owners prioritize profit over animal wellbeing to a dramatic degree — whether they’re as attention-getting as Joe Exotic or not.
By failing to add some of this context, the directors of Tiger King veered into animal exploitation themselves. The health of these animals is so low on the list of priorities that the fact that white tigers are force-bred from incest isn’t even touched on. Imagine if Blackfish or The Cove, had taken a similar approach? “Sure, Shamu is being tortured but look at this trainer’s funny mullet!” The woke masses would have been furious. Sure, debating whether or not Carole Baskin fed her husband to tigers is more fun than debating the intricacies of animal abuse. But by ignoring the state of captive exotic animals in America in favor of drama, Tiger King has actually perpetuated the abuse of animals by making them serve solely as entertainment.
Let’s not allow the suffering of these animals — like the five tigers who got bullets to the head for being inconvenient to Joe Exotic — be for nothing. If you watch this show, have your laughs, share your “Carole Did It” memes, and then stand up against the system that allowed this nightmarish world to exist in the first place. Because the only true protagonists of Tiger King went through the series mostly ignored. And they undoubtedly deserve better.