"Tiger King" is Less Fun When You Realize What It's About

Netflix has been on a roll with original documentaries, and their latest release has been nothing short of a smashing success. “Tiger King” has taken the world by storm, exposing to audiences the life, crimes, and enemies of eccentric private zoo owner Joe Exotic. The internet has been eating this show up, spouting memes surrounding the show’s wildest theories. Did Carole Baskin really kill her husband? Where can we buy Joe’s country albums? Is Doc Antle’s son really on TikTok? Yet with all these wild speculations and commentaries, we seem to be glossing over the true meaning and importance of the series.

tiger in cage Yomex Owo through Unsplash

“Tiger King” gives the statistic that there are more tigers currently in captivity in the US than remain in the wild. After some research, this is horrifyingly true. According to National Geographic, there are currently only 3,900 tigers left in the wild (for reference, we had around 100,000 a century ago), yet we have 5,000 that are currently captive in the US. Sadly, the problem cannot simply be solved by releasing those in captivity back into their natural habitats, as these animals now lack the skills to survive without human aid. The argument I’ve seen most (and remember Exotic himself using as justification for breeding) is that protecting the cats here prevents them from reaching extinction. But is a life in a cage truly an adequate replacement for their home in the wild?

Farm Alex Frank / Spoon

The crazy cat collectors take pride in being the owners of these predators and reap the benefits of tourists coming to see their pets. But what about the workers? In the show, we see that Joe Exotic’s zookeepers have such low income that they scavenge the expired Walmart meat truck used to feed the cats (there are SO many things wrong with that sentence). Despite the horrible treatment they are being given, they stick around because they know that if they leave, there will be no one left to care for the animals. One keeper even had their forearm torn off but believes that abandoning the animals would be worse than losing more limbs! Viewers continuously watch scenes of Joe playing with cubs and having photoshoots with tigers, but we never see him actually managing the care and wellbeing of those he claims to love. In fact, in the newly released bonus episode hosted by Joel McHale, it was revealed that Exotic is actually terrified of big cats, and that the adult tigers he took photos with were either sedated or disabled! He seems like more of a tiger dictator than a king if you ask me.

tiger playing with cub in cage nlw143 through Pixabay

While everyone has been clamoring over Joe’s Gucci tiger photo and Carole’s murderous tendencies, the actions of another owner appear to have been overlooked by the internet. Doc Antle, notorious for his zoo’s up close and personal animal encounters, doesn’t exactly have a clean slate. Since the series wrapped filming, he has been arrested following the discovery of a crematorium on his grounds. That’s right. He is rumored to have been exterminating tiger cubs after they got too big, because adult tigers are expensive to feed and require a lot of space. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything more evil than a baby tiger gas chamber. Oh, and not to mention the alleged cult of young women he had accrued that he manipulated sexually through promises of payment and kitty playtime. What a disgusting human being.

Orangutan Mother and Baby E-smile

Something I didn’t realize until a long time after viewing the series was that viewers were never clearly given advice on how we can help to stop the oppression of these animals and workers. So I did some more research, and have compiled a short list of worthy organizations and sanctuaries that need donations, especially in this era of social distancing when they are already short on income:

-The Wild Animal Sanctuary: Located in Keenesburg, CO, they are the nation’s LARGEST (that’s right, no tiny cages!) and oldest non-profit animal sanctuary, and they REALLY need financial help during this pandemic!

-The National Wildlife Federation: An organization working since 1936 to defend animals and fight for conservation.

-Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary: A rehabilitation center in Phelan, CA where the animals are their first priority along with education of the general public on conservation.

-The Humane Society of the United States: Working to preserve wildlife and keep animals where they belong- the wild.

-Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS): These three sanctuaries in Northern California specialize in the rescue of abused animals from exotic and performance trades, and act as their advocates in criminal investigations.

-Animal Legal Defense Fund: They are essentially the lawyers for captive creatures, dedicated to ensuring that state and federal laws work in favor of animals trapped in cages.

tiger in cage Capri23auto through Pixabay

One final curiosity I wanted to figure out, and possibly the root of my fascination with these zoos, involves a family vacation I took some 8 years ago. We visited a big cat sanctuary which, at the time, seemed morally just in its display and education of formerly brutalized predators. But out of fear that I had supported someone like Joe Exotic, there was only one way to know for sure. Thankfully, through analyzing reviews and reports, I have found that Turpentine Creek Wildlife Reserve in Eureka Springs, AR is indeed a rescue for abused cats (like those owned by Exotic himself), and my money went towards a worthwhile non-profit organization. I highly recommend visiting!

I love the “Tiger King” memes just as much as the next person. But remember, this story has its villains and its victims. Know the difference.