Hey all you cool cats and kittens! (ughhh, I just couldn’t help myself!) Lawwwd almighty, what is happening!? The world of isolation since COVID-19 has got people doing strange things. Hoarding toilet paper, binge-watching The Office for the 200th time (that was already happening), but nothing in this new world compares to the strange-ness happening in Netflix’s “Tiger King,” the tiger tale of Joe Exotic and like-minded big cat hoarding eccentrics. So as someone in the animal care field in an accredited facility, this documentary was horrifying. Animal abuse is something that just can’t be taken lightly. But if ever there were a story to be told to distract from that abuse, this is it. Tiger King was entertaining as hell! It’s just mindless, insanity, that leaves you scratching your head over and over again wondering what realm these people exist, thankful for never doing drugs, and who let them have tigers!?
This is not a review of Tiger King. But rather than scrutinize someone’s money-grab attempt at a documentary, there are two things I want you to take away from Tiger King. One, it was entertainment. In order to get views, things need to be entertaining so distracting from abuse with just absolute insanity is simply a brilliant, smoke-and-mirrors way to get people watching (remember that it’s from the same people that did the FYRE Fest documentary). And two, and most importantly – the documentary shed light that we have a glaring problem with breeding, buying, and selling of privately-owned big cats in the US and that roadside zoos that allow cub-petting and similar activities for cash are feeding a dark industry.
When I was about 7 or 8, my dad, who was a state trooper, loaded my brother and I up in the squad car and rode to the county jail. This is a strange story. You’re probably thinking, “oh, he wanted to show you guys the dreadfulness of life on the inside. See the Shawshank food. The horrors of single-ply toilet paper.” No.
Some guy that my dad knew had an exotic animal farm of sorts. From what I’ve gathered, it sounded like a backyard collection of exotic animals and big cats. Well he brought a tiger cub to the waiting room of the jail, and we laughed, and rolled around, and played. For an 8 year old boy and a kid obsessed with animals, it was awesome! But for the cub, and that more importantly, for captive tigers, and for the survival of different tiger species, it was not awesome. Cub petting has become a disgraceful, lucrative business. The cubs are used for these experiences for a very brief period of their adolescent life, then they are put out into the underbelly of the exotic animal trade. As adults, the tigers are often sold to varying condition roadside zoos like ones seen in Tiger King or worse. The argument I’ve had with people is that some backyard zoo owners love their animals. I. Don’t. Doubt. That… I love my cats. My regular, run-of-the-mill, beautiful house cats. If you want to love an animal, go to your local rescue center and adopt a dog or a cat. Loving your pet lion is not an excuse for fueling the breeding of privately-owned big cats.
In the same small town I grew up in, the same place that let a guy bring a tiger cub into the county jail, we hosted a county fair every year. I was probably around 13 or 14, under a four-post, dingy red and white (now brownish-yellow) tent, they had a single elephant giving rides on one side, and on the other side in a rolling travel cage, about 6 x 8 ft., was an adult liger. This is in the early 2000’s. We’re not talking in circus-era america, this is like 2002 or so. And guess what… little towns dotted all over the country like in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, home of Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo and every where in between keep roadside zoos and attractions functioning because some people don’t know better. I wish 8 year old me knew the negative impact that playing with that tiger cub was having. I wish 14 year old me knew better than to step into the tent to see that poor cat or watch my favorite animal, the elephant, go round and round and round. Luckily for me, my grandma and I frequented the Indianapolis Zoo quite often, and I was able to see how exotic animals could be captive, but also live enriched, fulfilled lives while representing their species in a positive manner, and send a proactive conservation message. And for this, she and the Indy Zoo are a big reason I became a zoo keeper, and not the proud ringmaster of some backyard menagerie.
When they released the eighth episode of Tiger King, which is basically just Joel McHale interviewing “people of Walmart,” I couldn’t bring myself to get through it. I’m just not interested in their lives. Frankly, I’m not interested if Carol killed her husband. But what I am interested in is the concerning number of privately owned big cats in this country, and what we can do to make sure our money and resources are going to reputable zoos and facilities. The answer to that is pretty simple actually. Stop petting tiger cubs! Just don’t do it. Don’t take a picture with a tiger cub or a chimpanzee or a monkey or a dinosaur or any sort of wildlife tourist trap because you want to look cool on your Instagram. But besides that, be very careful when you decide to visit a “sanctuary” or “rescue” or roadside zoo. I’ll say this very clear. There are good facilities, ran by good people, that have good intentions. But it is your responsibility to find out who they are and decide the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ask yourself these questions? Are they breeding big cats? BAD. Can I pet cubs (or pet anything not found on your grandpa’s farm, unless your grandpa is Joe Exotic… talk about awkward holidays)? Bad. It’s pretty simple stuff guys.
Tiger King has apparently stirred up lots of emotions with people. The most frightening of which is that they can’t get past the entertainment value, and see that there is a real problem with the treatment of big cats in the U.S. If you want to have a conversation regarding any of the hot topics or issues surrounding Tiger King, hit me up on Twitter: @zookeeperkyle1. If you want to defend your weird Uncle Ray’s mountain lion he keeps in his garage, let’s go! In the meantime, proceeds from ZooKeeperKyle merch right now will benefit Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion, IN. Some of their big cats and bears were rescued from people connected to the Joe Exotic s%@t show, and from the catastrophe in Zanesville, OH. They could really use some help amid the COVID-19 crisis right now, as they continue to educate people about the dangers of privately-owned exotic animals. Thanks for reading, and be on the lookout for less Tiger King and more content and ways to get active and involved to help make the world for endangered big cats a better place.