Why ‘Tiger King’ does not do tigers justice: “It was never about the animals.”

“I’m in a cage. Do you know why animals die in cages? Their soul dies.” 

These were the words of Joe Maldonado-Passage, a tiger keeper and the former owner of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, from the Grady County Jail.  

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a Netflix documentary, has garnered attention with its dramatic characters, conspiracy theories, and big cats. The eight-episode series showcases the feud between Maldonado-Passage, who goes by Joe Exotic, and Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue. 

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Essentially, although there were larger disagreements at play, Joe Exotic’s cub breeding and petting activities did not sit well with Baskin, an animal rights activist. Their conflict escalated in 2019, when Joe Exotic was indicted for attempting to hire someone to kill Baskin. 

Joe Exotic claims to love his animals, but he was indicted on 19 wildlife charges in addition to two counts of murder-for-hire. This might seem out of the blue, because his animal abuse was hardly touched upon in Tiger King. Upon closer inspection, however, the animal abuse was clearly depicted. Here are a few topics that the documentary similarly failed to address properly.   

Tiger ownership issues

Legality, money, time commitment, and the risk of escapees becoming an invasive species are just a few factors that go into exotic pet ownership. With that in mind, it’s important to realize that not all exotic pets and their owners should be branded as “bad.” 

If not all exotic pets are bad, why is owning a tiger such a bad thing? Well, as top predators and wild animals, tigers pose a risk to pet owners and their neighbors’ safety. This was evident when Saff Saffrey, one of Joe Exotic’s former zookeepers, had his arm amputated after a tiger-related accident. The ability to show off an endangered species can also become addicting. Tiger King depicted Jeff Lowe, Joe Exotic’s business partner and the current owner of the Greater Wynnewood Zoo, sneaking tiger cubs into Las Vegas hotels in suitcases for cub-petting parties. 

The lack of tiger ownership regulation at the federal, state, and county level muddles the true value of captive tigers. There are around 3,900 tigers left in the wild, but between 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers in the United States, according to the National Geographic. We have many tigers in zoos and rescues, but, according to the World Wildlife Fund, tigers in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) comprise only six percent of captive tigers! This means private tiger ownership makes up the majority of captive tigers in the U.S.   

As crazy as it may seem to own a tiger, it is completely legal in eight states: North Carolina, Alabama, Delaware, Nevada, Oklahoma (home to Joe Exotic’s zoo), South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Fourteen other states simply require a permit. 

Caring for tigers is extensive and laborious, yet owners are not held accountable. Joe Exotic isn’t illegally owning tigers, but going from owning just one tiger to several tigers is a big step. It is also problematic that Joe Exotic, “Doc” Antle Bhagavan, and other private zoo owners featured on Tiger King were actively breeding tiger cubs for profit. A USDA license permits people to breed tigers, but again, the prevalence of tiger ownership in the U.S. makes it difficult for the USDA to ensure that tiger-breeding conditions are safe and humane. 

Animal husbandry (or the lack thereof)

Exotic animals are high-maintenance, and a tiger is no exception. The tiger keepers in Tiger King had a plethora of animal husbandry issues. Viewers should not be expected to recognize that the conditions were abnormal, since the show did not feature any wildlife experts who could point out the facilities’ shortcomings.

In episode 4, Joe Exotic dragged a newborn tiger cub out of the pen with a stick to check the cub’s sex, while its mother was still giving birth. The separation between mother and cub doesn’t end there, since cub petting and photoshoots were offered at Joe Exotic’s zoo. His extremely inappropriate behavior during a tiger birthing underscores how he easily disregards proper care for mothers and cubs.  

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Joe Exotic pulls a newborn tiger cub out of a pen (Photo credit: Netflix)

Tigers are also solitary creatures, with the exception of mothers caring for cubs, according to the AZA tiger care manual. Wild male tigers have approximately 40 square miles of territory, and wild females have approximately seven. Tiger exhibits should also have large outdoor space, bodies of water, natural vegetation, and trees.

Proper zoos, while lacking in territory size, focus on cultivating their enclosures carefully because a lack of stimulation can cause abnormal behavior and poor health in the animal, according to Born Free. Unfortunately, Joe Exotic kept his animals in small and sparse cages. On several occasions, there was footage of at least ten tigers crowded in a pen during feeding time. This would be unacceptable in accredited facilities because crowding may lead to fights and nutrition imbalance, especially when certain tigers obtain more food than others.

Anesthesia was also a glaring issue in Tiger King. In veterinary practice, it is custom to calculate anesthesia dosage based on animal weight. When tigers are anesthetized, a veterinarian should be present to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and anesthetic depth, according to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. In Tiger King, there was no indication that Joe Exotic weighed the tigers before injecting anesthesia, and there was no veterinarian present to monitor the tiger’s condition when it was being transported. 

These are just a few examples of tiger mistreatment that was clearly visible in Tiger King. We see Joe Exotic feeding his tigers expired Walmart meat. We hear tiger cubs squawking in distress as they’re passed around in an overstimulating photo environment. And there are probably more examples from footage that was either edited out, or lost in Joe’s studio fire. 

Wildlife tourism or animal exploitation?

“Tigers are beautiful, mysterious, and powerful creatures. Who wouldn’t be taken with the opportunity to see one up close? The money I pay to interact with a tiger cub will go towards caring for them and tiger conservation right?”

This is a misconception that many people have when they take part in wildlife tourism. All the photos you’ve seen of people being lifted by elephant trunks, petting lions, and holding baby sea turtles fall under the umbrella of wildlife tourism. This industry rakes in dollars upon dollars; certain communities may rely on wildlife tourism as an important source of income. Unfortunately, the animals involved are often abused behind-the-scenes, drugged for easier photo opportunities, stressed out, and treated as replaceable objects. Another misconception is that wildlife tourism only happens abroad. This is not always the case, since the private zoos featured in Tiger King were offering a form of wildlife tourism by charging money for human-animal interaction and photo opportunities. 

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Elephant riding is a common form of wildlife tourism. 

Contrary to what Tim Stark, owner of Wildlife In Need, said in Tiger King, charging money for these activities is not the same thing as charging a museum fee to educate the public on tiger conservation. Museums, zoos, and some facilities have animal exhibits, but the animals are either non-interactive, interactive for only a short window of time, or optional additions to the overall experience. People who own wildlife tourism ventures, on the other hand, view animals from a business, not educational, mindset. 

Tiger cubs grow also very quickly. A dog-sized, pet tiger cub can transform into a several hundred pound financial and safety liability in a matter of months. After twelve weeks, tiger cubs are considered “too dangerous” for petting events, according to National Geographic. The cubs’ rapid maturation inadvertently results in a vicious cycle of more and more breeding to maintain business. In Tiger King, Joe Exotic and other private zoo owners unashamedly engaged in this practice, abusing cubs and treating tigers as business props rather than living beings.  

In the moment, wildlife tourism is often justified as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which is why many people have unintentionally supported animal abuse. If you have unknowingly taken part in these activities, don’t beat yourself up about it. What matters more is acknowledging these events and helping spread awareness on animal exploitation in the future. 

Conservation and private breeding 

“What’s the first thing you should do to protect an endangered species?” Stark asks in Tiger King. “Make more. Not eliminate the source.”

Wildlife experts and conservation biologists have made this clear: private breeding does not equate to conservation. Based on context, it seems that Stark believes “the source” of tigers includes private zoos. This is a ridiculous statement, because tigers originate from Asia and are ill-suited to survive in Midwest plains or desert ranches. In addition, many privately bred tigers in roadside zoos are never released into the wild, because a) they would never survive, and b) they are sold or further bred as a steady source of income. 

Reckless and repetitive tiger breeding can lead to many genetic issues. There are six tiger subspecies. Legitimate conservation breeding distinguishes between these subspecies, whereas private breeders mix up tiger lineage and disqualify their tigers from participating in captive-breeding efforts, according to the National Geographic. 

Throughout the series, it was clear that Joe Exotic bred tiger cubs for cub petting at his own zoo, to sell to others, or for his own pleasure. His breeding practices did not align with the AZA’s Species Survival Plan (SSP), which works on species conservation with certified facilities and animal experts. The Tiger SSP maintains sustainable and genetically diverse tiger populations, differentiates between tiger subspecies, raises awareness about conservation issues, and supports research on tiger biology — Joe Exotic did none of these. 

Thus, contrary to what Stark said in Tiger King, people concerned about tigers’ future should not be donating their money to non-accredited zoos with private breeding. Tiger King’s producers should not have included his opinions, especially without a counter statement from professional conservationists, because it misinforms the audience. 

Unaccredited vs. accredited facilities

Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries and has affiliations with numerous non-profit animal organizations. Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo, on the other hand, was not accredited by the AZA or any other credible wildlife conservation organization. Tiger King also failed to disclose that Joe Exotic had been repeatedly cited by the USDA for violating Animal Welfare Act standards.  

These distinctions were overshadowed by constant squabbling and footage that failed to differentiate between the two facilities. As a result, Big Cat Rescue released a statement refuting the show’s narrative of its enclosures, and accredited wildlife facilities have had to clarify their practices on their platforms. 

After seeing Tiger King, I worry that I may unknowingly endorse a shadier organization by visiting them or liking their social media posts. Luckily, there are ways to help determine whether a facility is legitimate. 

Legitimate sanctuaries should not be breeding or allowing hands-on interactions with its animals. Being hands-off applies to the keepers, too. Zoos accredited by the AZA must abide by federal animal health, education, and safety requirements. There are other organizations that accredit facilities, such as the Zoological Association of America, which does allow cub petting. So before we visit a zoo or sanctuary, it doesn’t hurt for us to do some quick research into the organizations that endorse them! 

In conclusion

It’s ironic how Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the show’s directors, created a documentary about people exploiting tigers yet chose to capitalize off of drama and character quirks instead of focusing on the animal issues. 

Goode and Chaiklin wanted to investigate the “pathology of people that engaged in these subcultures,” according to a Rolling Stones interview. Okay, so maybe exposing animal welfare issues was not part of their plan. Even with their psychoanalytical entertainment angle in mind, I did not hear opinions from psychologists in the series on why these people wanted to exploit exotic animals. I wanted answers, and what I received was runaway storytelling and sensationalism. 

A prime example of the scattered narrative has manifested in the social media discourse revolving around whether Baskin killed her husband (a narrative that she refutes). The sensationalism could not be more clear when an entire episode was dedicated to fuel that conspiracy theory, but Joe Exotic and others’ blatantly evident animal abuse was glossed over for the rest of the show. 

When this missing husband debate became one of the main things people took away from Baskin, it diminished her credibility as the show’s representation of conservation. Baskin may not be the best example to use as the face of animal activism, but Tiger King’s ability to cast doubt on a tiger rehabilitation facility will negatively affect real conservationists doing honest, scientific work to help tigers.  

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Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue. (Photo credit: Netflix)

The flurry of activity that Tiger King caused on social media has really shown how influential the media is when it comes to disseminating information. Various Tiger King interviewees, including Doc Antle, Carole Baskin, and John Finlay have spoken out about how the series inaccurately portrayed them in the show. These issues emphasize how important it is for science communicators and other journalists evaluate the impact of their work on their intended audience and on their subjects. 

One positive side to this situation is that many people did become more aware of the animal cruelty occurring in private facilities. They are more quick to comment questions on wildlife facilities’ social media (Instagram and TikToks), and accredited facilities are treating these questions as an opportunity to educate the public on what actual sanctuaries do.  

The featured people in Tiger King are outlandishly meme-worthy, yet it’s somewhat disappointing to see all the memes and TikToks going around glorifying Tiger King. People are selling Tiger King merchandise, which vaguely seems like they are profiting off of animals. At the very least, these entrepreneurs should be donating part of their proceeds to tiger conservation groups. 

I have tried to focus on the tigers in this article instead of broaching the controversial human side of the show. However, when Cardi B tweeted about setting up a GoFundMe to get Joe Exotic out of prison, the irony could not have been more obvious: a celebrity that endorses progressive values but blindly supports a man who made violent and misogynistic comments towards a woman.

Perhaps Cardi B was making light of entertainment. Humor and light-heartedness is necessary when you’re socially isolating indoors, but deep down, Tiger King possesses neither of those qualities. Will there be a season two? It’s still up in the air, but I think I’ll save my time by not watching it. 

Sources: Big Cat Rescue: Credentials, Tigers Species Survival Plan, Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Species Survival Plan Programs, National Geographic: Tiger Facts, Born Free: Zoochosis, Redefining Wildlife Tourism: Ethically Interacting with Animals Abroad, National Geographic: Key facts that ‘Tiger King’ missed about captive tigers, Online Paralegal Programs, Vox: Let’s think twice about Tiger King, AZA Tiger Care Manual, National Geographic: Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild. It’s a problem., NBC News: ‘Tiger King’ memes and Joe Exotic jokes mask the Netflix doc’s most chilling takeaway, Big Cat Rescue: Refuting Netflix Tiger King, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine: Big cat care requires anesthesia, Rolling Stone: Big Cats, Cults and Murder: Inside the Making of Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’, World Wildlife Fund: 5 things Tiger King doesn’t explain about captive tigers

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