What Can We Learn from Tiger King?
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
One of my favorite places in the world is sitting on my couch with my orange tabby purring peacefully on my lap. This has been my one place to find tranquility in this tumultuous COVID-19 world.
There is something about cats. My cat, Hoover, can certainly be a little devil, often stealing my hair ties, scratching up our furniture, and keeping us up at night (of all times, why do cats crave playing at 2 a.m.?) However, no matter what he does, that little cat has captured my heart.
And so I have a hard time resisting any sort of show that centers around cats—and of course I’m particularly interested in those big relatives of my cat that share nearly 96 percent of his DNA, according to one study (NatureCommunications).
So I knew from the first few moments of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King, it would keep me enthralled (not always in a good way) in a world somehow even more unusual and frenzied than the pandemic we’re living through.
At first, I thought this show would focus only on the bizarre tiger owners themselves, but I’ve found I really appreciate its wider purpose of revealing a world of exotic pet ownership that can be far more widespread and corrupt than I ever imagined.
A fact that really stuck with me: there are more tigers in the U.S. than in the wild. And the World Wildlife Fund backs this up—while there are only around 3,200 tigers in the wild, the U.S. has an estimated 5,000 captive tigers (WWF). And these tigers are not all in accredited zoos–in fact, the World Wildlife Fund says this number is only about 6 percent. The rest belong to private breeders, sideshows, truck stops, and even urban apartments. This is partially due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states regulating some facilities with tigers, but federal oversight can be lax. In fact, (sorry, spoiler ahead!) the first episode of Tiger King talks about an incident in 2011 where a tiger owner in Zanesville, Ohio let his dangerous animals loose and then died by suicide. Sadly, the first responders had to shoot 10 tigers and in addition to other animals (Esquire). The show goes on to discuss how social media is possibly making an obsession with exotic animals worse. A favorite for social media posts: pictures with tiger cubs, which the World Wildlife Fund is trying to get the USDA to ban (WWF). Now, as the show also touches on, there are those who are against all organizations that believe in animals being held in captivity. Sadly, captivity can be one of the safest places for these animals, though, and it can save their species from extinction due to major threats like deforestation, poaching, and climate change (TheGuardian). I think the key is supporting organizations that are ethical and really working towards conserving the vital natural habitats of their inhabitants. Unfortunately, I think because Tiger King focuses more on the zany lives of the zoo owners, this important information for the public is kind of lost. However, it has started an important discussion. Below are my recommendations for things we can do to help make sure these incredible creatures are treated humanely in captivity and saved in their true wild glory.
Look for a trustworthy accreditation
Zoos and other animal organizations can have a lot of affiliations. How do you know which ones are trustworthy? There’s one overarching organization’s stamp of approval you can look for when wondering if a zoo is treating its animals humanely—the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which has a rigorous accreditation process (National Geographic).
So how does it work? After a zoo or aquarium in the U.S. applies for the AZA accreditation, it’s time for the true test. Sixteen AZA experts in areas such as veterinary science, animal husbandry, and animal welfare carefully evaluate each zoo before giving it its accreditation, according to the AZA’s website. Basically every aspect of a zoo or aquarium is scrutinized to maintain this accreditation—that includes guest services, education, conservation, safety, finances, and staffing. After earning this accreditation, AZA members must repeat the whole process every five years to stay members.
Now, I’m not saying this organization is perfect. It’s been called out for issues, such as following limited animal welfare laws (The Humanist).
However, reports have found it can be better than other organizations that seem legitimate, such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). This organization, unlike it’s similar-sounding U.S. counterpart, doesn’t require an accreditation process (National Geographic).
A 2019 National Geographic report found hundreds of zoos who are members of the WAZA have been accused of mistreating animals. The international organization World Animal Protection (WAP) compiled the report, which found WAZA doesn’t have a code of ethics or animal welfare policy that its members must adhere to. One of the zoos mentioned in the report, Cango Wildlife Ranch, allowed visitors to pet cheetahs and servals, and take selfies with them. The fear with animal-interaction such as this is that it can involve training that’s based on pain and fear rather than rewards, according to the WAP.
This information makes me think of my first time seeing a cheetah run at the AZA-accredited San Diego Zoo this past fall. I think they handled this experience humanely for the animals because they didn’t let visitors go anywhere near touching these incredible creatures. Instead, they allowed the cats to run (one at a time) chasing a toy pulled behind a golf cart—all with their favorite doggie (yes, dog) companions nearby. The cats looked content and stimulated after their runs—and of course the visitors (myself included) were absolutely wowed after getting a rare glimpse at the world’s fastest land animal in action.
Give Attention to the Right Places
I will admit, the unusual characters in Tiger King are hard not to watch. However, if there’s one thing the show makes clear, it’s that Joe Exotic, the so-called “Tiger King”, certainly thrives off of this attention (and doesn’t want to share it).
Something I will say that disappointed me a bit about the show is just how focused it is on the character’s personal lives while potentially glazing over some important questions about how the animals at “roadside zoos” like Joe Exotic’s are treated, and about what role in conservation they really play. This is something animal rights activists are hoping for in Sunday’s new episode (New York Times).
The show does mention how Joseph Maldonado-Passage (Joe Exotic) fed his felines expired meat and roadkill found around his Oklahoma zoo. The show doesn’t mention that this likely led to at least some of the felines having growth deficiencies, according to the chief science and animal welfare officer at the Colorado wildlife sanctuary where four of Joe Exotic’s tigers ended up (CNN). In addition, many of the tigers at the Oklahoma zoo were declawed and kept in cages that were too small, the CNN report reveals.
The show does briefly mention how there’s currently a bill before Congress, H.R.1380 - Big Cat Public Safety Act, which, “revises requirements governing the trade of big cats (i.e., species of lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, or cougar or any hybrid of such species)” and “revises restrictions on the possession and exhibition of big cats, including to restrict direct contact between the public and big cats.” I think these sorts of efforts are important for the public to be aware of.
In addition, I think in terms of the public's responsibility, there should be more of a focus on conservation work and less attention on selfies. I wish the Netflix show had let people know how they can potentially protect these beautiful animals in the wild—one way could be to support the international NGO the Wildlife Conservation Organization, which has about 500 conservation projects in 60 countries (UNESCO). According to its website, WCS is working with local scientists to conserve more than 50 percent of the world’s remaining tigers and around 75 percent of published research about tigers is from WCS scientists.
Understand The Need for Their Conservation
These imposing predators were once found in forests throughout Asia, with as many as 100,000 just a century ago. However, it’s believed now there are only around 4,000—but this doesn’t really paint the full picture of how close we are to losing this incredible animal (Mongabay). There are about six subspecies of tiger, and at least one, the South China tiger, is extinct in the wild. The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered along with the Malayan tiger, and the Indochinese tiger has not been recorded in its Vietnam range in about 20 years.
You might be wondering where those stunning white tigers fit into the subspecies. It turns out, they are simply Bengal tigers that are inbred (IFL). White Bengal tigers are incredibly rare in the wild and practically everyone in captivity today and trace its lineage back to one tiger captured around 1951.
Of course, tiger breeding is a central issue discussed in Tiger King, but for those who have yet to see the show, I won’t give too much away.
However, I will say I think it’s sad the show focuses so much on Joe Exotic himself and not on the work of journalists who have been reporting about the corrupt world of tiger ownership for years, such as National Geographic’s Sharon Guynup.
Guynup who told PBS recently, “There is no conservation value to tiger tourism. These animals are heavily inbred so they have inbreeding health problems, especially the white tigers.” She also said an important distinction between a true wildlife sanctuary and a roadside zoo is that sanctuaries make sure animals have the right nutrition and veterinary care, often keeping the animals for life, and roadside zoos don’t. This distinction is unfortunately not mentioned in Tiger King.
Guynup went undercover for 18 months with wildlife photojournalist Steve Winter to investigate the illegal wildlife trade across the United States (I would definitely watch a future Netflix show about this investigation, just as a side note!). Winter made two important points to PBS based on his experiences about tiger conservation: 1. No captive-bred tiger has ever been released back into the wild, and 2: While the U.S. has “some powerful conservation influence on other species, but we have absolutely no credibility when it comes to tigers.”
Make small lifestyle changes to save tiger habitat
Here’s where I think we can all really play a part in protecting these incredible animals evening during the difficult circumstances of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 zoos and sanctuaries are closed to the public right now so we can’t exactly visit those that are treating these big cats humanely and contributing to conservation work. However, the choices we make on our sporadic grocery shopping trips do matter.
I mentioned in a previous post the harm of the unsustainable palm oil industry, and it certainly is taking its toll on Indonesia’s wild tigers. The WWF says that while poaching is still the largest threat, deforestation for the palm oil industry destroying tiger habitats has led to Sumatra losing more than half of its tiger population in the last four decades.
How can you help? Look for products that are certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), or better yet, buy fewer products all-together if you can (but you’ll see, it’s incredibly challenging since this versatile oil is the most widely consumed on the planet and can be found in everything from shampoo to candy (WWF)).
Full disclosure: RSPO has had serious accusations of greenwashing and not going far enough to protect the planet’s vital rainforests, however, at the end of 2018, they adopted more stringent practices to truly prevent deforestation and protect wildlife (WWF).
Another effort to save tiger habitat includes the North American Sustainable Palm Oil effort (NASPON) which is aiming to have around 100 percent of the palm oil consumed in North America produced via verified sustainable practices by the end of 2020 (WWF).
Preserving tiger habitat can have a huge impact on their wild populations. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reported in 2016 that protecting tiger habitats increased wild tiger populations in Nepal by 61 percent and India by 31 percent.
Of course, the WRI also projects that by 2050, the world will need to produce around 70 percent more food calories to feed a growing population—and of course a lot of those food commodities will have palm oil.
Climate change is also threatening tiger populations, including those in the Sundarbans—a mangrove forest area on the coast of the Indian Ocean that India and Bangladesh share (WWF). A study found anticipated sea level rise could completely destroy this habitat and the tigers that depend on it by 2070.
So doing our part to curb climate change—eating less meat, driving less, flying less, conserving energy, growing more of our own food, etc.—can help us save the remarkable big cats that captivate our minds and imaginations (for more ideas of what you can do, visit: Friends of Earth and stay tuned for future Need for Nature posts!)
I think while we all like to laugh about the kooky characters in Tiger King, the show would obviously not be the same without the closeup shots and stories of these mighty striped predators.
The show hints at the psychological power boost owning these impressive animals can seem to provide. However, I hope we can all remember the wild places that truly created these amazing cats, and the importance of protecting their forest homes not only for their future, but our own.
Rain forests are sometimes called the lungs of the planet and are critical for stabilizing the world's climate by absorbing the atmosphere's excess carbon dioxide, which causes climate change (Mongababay). These incredible habitats also play a major role in the water cycle and provide moisture that influences weather around the world. For example, Southeast Asian forests have affected weather as far away as southeastern Europe and forests in the Congo have played a role in the weather of America's Midwest.
Destroying these vital ecosystems also brings animals that can pass along diseases like COVID-19 closer to each other, as famous British primatologist Jane Goodall has noted recently. Diseases can also spread when wild animals are hunted for food and then sold at crowded markets. (For more about the importance of rain forests, check out this my post about ways to help the Amazon Rain Forest).
Protecting rain forests that are home to these exquisite predators and so many other amazing species should be our true focus.
And just as stroking the silky fur of my curious orange tabby makes me want to protect his wild tiger relatives, I do think organizations that are credible and doing valuable work to educate the public about threats to tiger ecosystems are important to their conservation.
Catching a glimpse of a tiger's golden eyes and learning about the threats that it faces certainly makes you want to save these extraordinary animals and the incredible ecosystems they depend on.
Sources: https://www.earthwiseaware.org/not-all-zoos-are-bad-but-how-do-you-know/ (Look for AZA accreditation)