Tiger By Nick Karvounis

by Cindy Machado, originally published in the Marin Independent Journal.

During these unusual times, many of us are turning to our television screens to binge-watch the latest shows – after all, we can all use a little escapism. One show in particular seems to have caught the nation’s fascination. Unfortunately, there is so much more to the story of the “Tiger King,” than what this sad reality show reveals.

After watching the first few episodes, it didn’t take long to understand why so many people were fascinated by the story of Joe Exotic and others like him. For me, it was a display of blatant animal cruelty, substandard conditions, improper care, and the often-unpleasant personality traits of individuals involved in the exploitation of animals – and the exploitation of people. 

On the surface, one might think hanging around exotic big cats is a dream come true. But for the animal victims in these lucrative businesses, their lives are far from a dream. The profits come from people paying top dollar to have their picture taken with a cub. But cubs grow up – so to keep turning a profit, more cubs must be produced.

According to PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary here in California:

  • Cub petting operations must constantly breed their females. This “speed breeding” physically depletes the mothers, and cubs are often born sickly or dead.
  • Cubs are ripped from their mothers shortly after birth, traumatizing both mother and cubs. The cubs are then hand raised, depriving them of immune-boosting antibodies found in their mother’s milk and leaving them vulnerable to disease, including some that can be transmitted to adults and children who handle them.
  • Once they grow big enough to be used for photos ops, cubs are subjected to hours of rough handling, denied sleep, and often abused.
  • After about 8-12 weeks the cubs can no longer be used, as they are too dangerous for the public to handle. They may be sold to other roadside zoos or private individuals where conditions may be as bad or even worse, retained to breed more cubs, or, as Tiger King suggests, killed.

For many of us in the world of animal law enforcement, dealing with the captive wildlife trade and all the issues that go along with it can’t end soon enough. For decades, we’ve been trying to educate people, encourage enforcement in jurisdictions with little to no regulations on exotic animal ownership, and work hard to combat the breeding and resulting surplus of tigers in pseudo-sanctuaries, backyards, and private breeders.

Reputable animal sanctuaries like PAWS and Big Cat Rescue only accept animals confiscated by law enforcement or from owners who are trying to get rid of them. The sanctuaries prohibit petting and in the case of Big Cat Rescue, will only take animals if the owners sign a contract declaring that they’ll never own, or even have a photo taken with, another big cat.

It’s easy to breed tigers for profit, but it it’s harder to care for them in ways that help them thrive. Two national groups that ensure good care standards for exotic animals are the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. If you come across a facility or individual promoting exotic animals, check to see if they are a member of either of these organizations before giving them your business or donations.

And, H.R. 1380, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, will provide a national framework to prevent many of the cruelties portrayed in Tiger King. Tigers, along with other exotic animals, belong in the wild and in properly accredited zoos and sanctuaries, not in the hands of individuals who exploit them.

While it’s unfortunate Netflix didn’t use this opportunity to expose the level of cruelty and inhumane treatment of these animals, I am heartened to see this as a starting point for conversations about how we treat wild animals and how we can work to end their exploitation.