In episode one of Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (a new seven-part docuseries about former roadside zoo owner and convicted criminal Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage), Carole Baskin—an animal rights activist and the CEO of accredited wildlife sanctuary Big Cat Rescue—asserts:
“Anybody who poses with an exotic cat is a problem, and that just drives more and more and more breeding of these cats who will never live free.”
Tiger King certainly alludes to the suffering of big cats used in tourist traps, but the docuseries—ultimately focusing on the rivalry between Baskin and Joe Exotic—glosses over why forcing these animals to participate in public encounters or photo ops is never worth it.
If you are finding that you have some extra time on your hands….
— Nick Zerwas (@NickZerwas) March 24, 2020
In the first episode, for example, sleeping tigers are passed around for rapid-fire photo ops during what Joe refers to as “playtime.” When asked by a customer how old the tiger cubs are, he reveals that they’re just 6 weeks old. The cubs in this clip have their eyes closed because they’re exhausted, likely after being overworked. Like any young animal (including human babies), tiger cubs require a lot of sleep, but these cubs are often not afforded adequate rest. “From the time that they’re 4 weeks old to the time that they’re 16 weeks old, you can profit $100,000 on that cub … interaction, playtime, photos,” Joe admitted on camera.
In another scene, Joe presents tiger cubs to a crowd of dozens of people and claims that “they’re only an hour old.” In episode four, after demanding that a camera operator film a mother tiger giving birth at his infamous ramshackle roadside zoo, The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, Joe and his cohort use a metal hook to drag one of the newborn cubs from their mother. This occurred mere moments after the helpless infant entered the world. A staff member then pulled the cringing newborn tiger cub under the enclosure’s metal fence, separating her completely from the safety of her mom.
Premature maternal separation often causes psychological and physiological trauma.
In nature, tiger cubs would stay by their protective and nurturing mothers for up to two years, but tiger cubs used for photo ops are torn away from their mothers when they’re just hours, days, or weeks old. Cold and heat stress, malnutrition, exhaustion, and infectious diseases affect many of these likely terrified cubs, particularly the youngest ones, whose immune systems aren’t fully developed yet.
In addition, the Tiger King scenes in which primates are shown being raised in a house with humans neglect to mention that they were torn away from their mothers. In their natural habitats, some primates stay even longer with their mothers than tiger cubs do, depending on them to learn social skills in their complex societies and cultures.
Tigers used for public encounters face a lifetime of suffering.
In episode one, a graph and Baskin’s narration explain the small “cub petting” age bracket for tiger cubs. The series mentions that once cubs grow beyond photo-op age (which is, at most, when they’re only a few months old), exhibitors regard tigers as nothing more than a bill—a bill that can live upwards of 20 years. Even so, not much is revealed about the fate of these animals.
While the series indicates that some tigers are killed, it fails to mention that most are relegated to dingy cages in roadside zoos and sometimes used for breeding to perpetuate the cycle. Many are inbred in order to get more “desirable” or profitable color patterns. In episode four, a cross-eyed white tiger makes an appearance—a demonstration of the way inbreeding can lead to genetic deformities and health issues.
Early on in Tiger King, viewers are introduced to the practice of carting big cats to shopping malls for exploitative cub-petting sessions and photo ops. Again, the docuseries leaves viewers merely to infer that this is horrible—there’s no explicit mention of the dangerous and stressful nature of transport for young cubs. When carted around, vulnerable, defenseless cubs are subjected to strange environments, cramped cages, and extreme temperatures. They have heightened stress responses in these conditions, and many of them have even died because of health complications resulting from stressful transport and handling.
Tiger cubs belong in the jungle by their mothers’ sides, not crammed into transport trucks and small cages to be hauled around for entertainment.
Tiger King let its audience down again when it included footage of Joe Exotic and other big-cat exploiters exhibiting tiger cubs on talk shows without explaining why this isn’t OK. Wild animals forced to appear on talk shows are typically crated for extended periods, transported to and from sets, and forced to endure noisy crowds that can cause them a great deal of stress. Exposing audiences to such exploitation may also make some likelier to buy exotic animals as “pets.” Forcing wild animals onto a bright, noisy soundstage surrounded by shouting crowds is cruel, and it’s irresponsible to teach viewers—including children—that this sort of treatment is acceptable.
Sure, Joe Exotic’s murder-for-hire plot makes for good television, but Tiger King didn’t delve nearly deeply enough into the abuse of the cub-petting industry. So once you’ve finished the Netflix docuseries, do yourself and big cats a favor by watching one more video …
… and resolve never to participate in photo ops with wild animals. Reputable sanctuaries never breed or sell animals, never allow public encounters or photo ops with wild animals, and never cart wild animals to fairs or other venues for entertainment. Don’t be duped by any shoddy operation that does these things and still calls itself a “sanctuary.” Click on the link below to speak out for captive tigers and other animals exploited by the entertainment industry:
PETA is working hard to protect tigers and other animals from the beatings, other abuse, and neglect common in the entertainment industry, and we need your support.