America’s Big Cat Problem
If, like us, you found yourself during lockdown being overwhelmed by day after day of increasingly grim news, you may have found solace in the Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Madness is certainly apt. Every few minutes of this messy, captivating, and at times surreal series yields some new surprise or jaw-dropping twist, to the extent that if I tried to explain the seven episodes in detail to someone who had never seen the show, I might be accused of making it all up.
In brief, though, the series tells the story of the titular Tiger King, ‘Joe Exotic’ (real name: Joseph Maldonado-Passage), the mullet-wearing, gun-toting, larger-than-life owner (at the time) of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and his bitter feud with his nemesis, Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary near Tampa, Florida. Bursting with unbridled energy, Joe’s eccentric, narcissistic character traits are so over-the-top, so untempered, that he almost seems to be a caricature of a real person – but that, of course, is what makes him such an ideal candidate for this kind of television.
Watching Tiger King and the people that feature on it, almost all of whom are varying degrees of dreadful, it soon becomes abundantly clear that the exotic animal market is saturated with corruption and ego-maniacs, with the big cats viewed as mere commodities, ripe for exploitation.
Nobody knows exactly how many captive tigers there are in the USA. That is because there is no national database to track and monitor them and no overarching federal law regulating big cat ownership. The best estimate is around 5,000, although only around 6% of these reside in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The rest are privately owned, kept either in unaccredited, unregulated roadside zoos, such as the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (otherwise known as the G.W. Zoo), or even in people’s backyards and basements. At one time, Joe Exotic himself claimed to own 227 tigers.
Conservation or Commercialisation?
It’s important at this point to explain the difference between AZA-accredited zoos and privately-owned facilities such as the G.W. Zoo. AZA-accredited facilities have standards for housing captive tigers and are governed by a strict set of rules for the breeding of animals in their care. For instance, they avoid inbreeding or selecting individuals that are in poor health. They also help to educate the public about wild animal diversity and raise funds for the conservation of wild animals and their habitats. Private facilities, by and large, do not do this. Yet the roadside zoos and petting places featured in Tiger King attract many thousands of visitors each year, who either don’t know any better or simply don’t care.
One of the claims that the featured big-cat owners make in Tiger King – and one that they tell the guests who visit their facilities – is that they are keeping and breeding these animals for conservation purposes. These points, however, are hugely misleading. Yes, they certainly are breeding tigers – but for entirely the wrong reasons. These cats are not, and never will be, intended for reintroduction into the wild. Nor are they part of any official breeding plan. In fact, the interbreeding between the different varieties of tiger means that they are not genetically contributing to any recognised subspecies and are therefore not aiding global conservation efforts whatsoever. It would be catastrophic if these animals were ever to breed with genetically-pure tigers, either in the wild or in captivity.
So why are private facilities such as the G.W. Zoo breeding tigers on such a large scale if not for conservation or educational purposes?
One word: profit.
Tiger cubs are a goldmine. Tourists can hug, bottle-feed and take selfies with adorable cubs at roadside zoos, country fairs and shopping malls. A five-minute cuddle can cost up to $100; a three-hour zoo tour with cub handling thrown in can rake in upwards of $700 per person. Guests are often told that they’re helping to save wild tigers and they leave happy and guilt-free.
Cub petting is legal in many parts of the US so long as the animals are between 8 and 12 weeks of age. After that, they are deemed too big and too dangerous for the public. If that seems to you like a very narrow window for cubs to be legally handled, you’d be absolutely right. It means that tigers are forced to give birth to multiple litters a year in ‘tiger mills’, pumping out cubs that are then separated from their mothers shortly afterwards, just to create a steady demand for customers, many of whom aren’t aware of the dark side of the industry.
When they grow too old to be handled by the public, a few of these tigers end up in accredited zoos and sanctuaries, but most simply become breeders themselves or are sold on, often forced to endure very poor living conditions and lacking suitable housing, nutrition and veterinary care. And since nobody in the United States is keeping track of exactly who is owning big cats and how many, some cubs simply disappear after they have aged out. Having outgrown their value, and with space for so many growing big cats limited, many are likely euthanised.
Some zoos and private collections also breed big cat hybrids. The liger – a hybrid between a male lion and a female tiger – is probably the most well-known. However, these crossbreeds are likely to suffer from genetic abnormalities and problems such as organ failure, and they are often sterile. There is also no scientific evidence that ligers exist in the wild. Even in the Indian state of Gurjarat, the last place on Earth where the ranges of wild lions and tigers overlap, the two species inhabit different areas. So it is clear that these hybrids have no conservation value; they are bred purely for entertainment and profit. The fact that ligers are the biggest cats on the planet mean they attract a lot of attention and money, which makes breeding them very financially rewarding for people like Joe Exotic.
Tigers in Suburbia
Depending on where you live in America, acquiring a big cat such as a tiger can be alarmingly easy. Although the Endangered Species Act and the Convention On International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) dictate that it is illegal to import and trade big cats between states in the US, it is still legal to keep them as pets so long as you source them from a breeder within your own state.
Each state has different laws on owning tigers. Some have ‘comprehensive bans’, which prohibits private ownership of ‘dangerous animals’, such as wild cats, other non-domesticated carnivores, and non-human primates. However, there are varying exemptions and levels of enforcement, and workarounds in these states can often be found. Other states have partial bans on exotic pets, although the regulations in many are, apparently, quite light and bendable. Most of the remaining states permit ownership of exotic animals under a licence or permit scheme (such as in Oklahoma where the G.W. Zoo is located), while four states – Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin – have, as of this writing, zero laws regulating big cat ownership. In these states, it can be easier to buy a tiger than adopt a dog from a local animal shelter. The differing rules in each state provide opportunities for big cats to be exploited, abused, and illegally traded across state lines.
It should go without saying that despite the intoxicating allure of tigers and other big cats, they do not make good pets. Quite apart from the fact that they are wholly unsuited to living in someone’s backyard or house, and that simply feeding them will likely cost upwards of $10,000 a year, they are also wild and dangerous animals. They cannot be truly tamed; they are formidable predators, not playthings. People who own big cats as pets can and do get mauled or killed. In 2003, a man who kept a tiger in a fifth-floor rented apartment in a building complex in Harlem, New York City, was lucky to only receive ‘massive bites on his arms and legs’ when the three-year-old animal in question attacked him. And on Tiger King itself, the keepers are occasionally shown losing control of the big cats, sometimes suffering terrible consequences.
Tigers in Trouble
Overshadowed for most of the series by ‘murder, mayhem and madness’, there is a message in Tiger King about severely decimated wild tiger populations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 3,900 tigers, across all subspecies, remain in the wild. When you compare that to the 5,000+ tigers kept in captivity on American soil alone (most of which are privately-owned), it is clear that the US has a big-cat problem. Considering that the wild tiger population has declined by 96% in the last century, such irresponsible breeding, most of which happens off-the-books, hinders genuine conservation efforts.
So what can be done about it? The rise of social media, and especially the proliferation of big cat selfies on social media platforms, has led to an increase in the desire to interact with these animals and has therefore reinforced the demand for cub-handling. The easiest thing, of course, is to remove this demand by not visiting privately-owned, unaccredited facilities. There are many zoos in America – and indeed around the world – where you can see tigers in safer, more enriching surroundings, most of which actively support and aid tiger conservation in the wild.
The notion of it being an individual’s right to own any type of pet – a right that the government should not interfere with – seems, to me at least, to be a very American one. Americans tend to not easily accept prohibitions on such things, but, fortunately, attitudes – and the law – seem to be changing. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is a bill currently being put to Congress. If signed into law, it will prohibit owning a big cat as a pet and ban contact between big cats and the public. In other words, no cub petting. This would remove the strongest incentive for private collections breeding big cats. If passed, this act would not only go great distances to keeping big cats and the public safe, it would also be a major victory for big cat conservationists the world over.
Update: Since writing this article, Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park has closed to the public, and all of its animals have been removed from the property.