Tiger King and charismatic mammals in captivityApril 6th, 2020
In the midst of worldwide COVID-19 isolation, Netflix dropped a limited series which has gripped the imagination of many: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
The titular ‘Tiger King,’ Joe Exotic, has become a polarising and popular figure on the memescape of Instagram in the week since the show aired. Some viewers have laughed at Exotic’s Oklahomian hillbilly antics, while others have vehemently supported his hatred of Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue in Florida.
Carole Baskin’s attempts to pass a law to prevent the private ownership of big cats in the USA made her the target of an assassination attempt by Exotic in 2017, as well as her being accused of killing her missing ex-husband and feeding him to the tigers at her rescue facility. Several videos from Exotic’s social media are shown throughout the series, featuring Exotic blowing up and shooting mannequins dressed up as Baskin.
While this series provides ample material for analyses of human marginalisation (how misogyny fuels much of both Exotic’s and the internet’s hatred for Baskin, for example, or how a zookeeper is described using incorrect pronouns throughout the series, or that a principal member of the cast, Rick Kirkham, has since been accused of sexual assault, or even a class analysis of how Exotic and his zookeeper misfit workers and teenage boyfriends become hilarious objects of ridicule) I began to wonder, what about the tigers?
The animals kept at Exotic’s GW Zoo and other private zoos are mostly used as extras by the producers of this series. When the animals are discussed, they are presented as both the victims of abuse and simultaneously as the means by which Exotic and other zoo owners abuse workers and sexually coerce teenagers.
At times, the animals are shown to have agency – one tiger damages a keeper’s hand so badly that the hand has to be amputated – however most of the animals are not acknowledged as individuals. Instead they only feature as objects that the (human) stars of the show interact with.
The animals are defined in purely financial terms, with the focus being on how much money can be made from them, versus how much they cost to keep. Ominous reports of big cats being ‘euthanised’ when they grow too old to be handled (over 12 weeks) are discussed briefly, while other animals are shown to be sold illegally to exotic animal keepers all over America.
Concerns about animal welfare are sidelined by the focus on the bizarre battle between Exotic and Baskin, framing the animal’s welfare as unimportant by comparison. When animal abuse is highlighted, it is weaponised to attempt to discredit the various members of the cast. Exotic, Bhagavan Antle, and yes, even ‘animal-rights person’ Baskin, are shown to have engaged in some pretty messed-up animal abuse throughout the series.
All three have advocated at some point in their careers for removing tiger cubs from their parents on the day of their birth. Exotic is shown pulling a newborn cub through the wires of a cage as the mother gives birth to another cub in one particularly heart-wrenching scene.
The most overlooked and forgotten animals in this show are the ones who are fed to the big cats, whose worth is literally reduced to whether their butchered parts will feed the captive tigers, lions and hybrids.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking comment comes from Wildlife in Need’s Tim Stark (WiN is currently under investigation by Indiana officials for endangering staff, by the way). Stark states that if we want to save endangered species, we should be breeding them as much as possible.
Stark is right – if we want to ‘save’ species purely for the sake of them continuing to exist, maybe backyard tiger breeding isn’t such a bad idea. This is the conservation-heavy rationale which keeps zoos in business. By breeding wild animals who will never know what it is to be wild, zoos convince their visitors that their work is vital to prevent species from dying out.
While some zoos are more visually attractive than the rundown, barren GW Zoo, they are essentially all the same – in all zoos, animals are born and die in captivity, and many are removed from their home and family to be traded around the world.
A few weeks before Tiger King aired, at the beginning of America’s COVID-19 isolation period, an adorable video made the rounds on social media – penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium had been allowed to wander the halls of the closed facility, greeting fish and beluga whales. This was described as an attempt by keepers to ‘enrich’ the penguins’ lives while the aquarium was closed. On the Shedd Aquarium website, both African penguins and beluga whales are positioned as endangered and in need of help, which this aquarium is providing. How paying to swim with captive belugas (one of the products Shedd Aquarium offers) will help the plight of wild belugas is not exactly clear, but the captive breeding programmes of this facility and other zoos continue unimpeded.
If viewers are concerned by the treatment of the animals in Exotic’s care, it is to be hoped that they will also think of captive animals elsewhere. Perhaps being constrained by lockdown will encourage some to think more empathetically towards animals in captivity, for whom every hour is regulated by someone other than themselves.
In the last episode of Tiger King, ex-zoo-keeper Saff states that throughout the legal battles between Exotic and Baskin, not a single animal was helped. Hopefully a positive outcome of this series will be that we begin to think critically about all captive animals, from penguins to tigers, and who their imprisonment truly serves.
This is an edited version of an article authored by C.L. Wilson, who is a PhD student at the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Their key areas of study are gender and animal advocacy, but they are also interested in pop culture and how it informs social norms. They live with many rescue animals including Trotsky, a big pink pig with a sassy attitude.
Read more about the life of animals held captive in zoos in New Zealand, and how you can help.