How Netflix’s Tiger King reveals just how messed up wildlife tourism has become

There are more captive tigers in the US than there are in the wild

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Guys, I’m deep into the viral docuseries Tiger King on Netflix, and my god, what a dreadful yet unmissable look at the worst (or unluckiest?) of humanity in rural America.

It’s like a car crash, and I just can’t tear my eyes away. I’m enthralled yet horrified, obsessed, and disgusted. The plot twists, the surprises, the frightening real glimpses of human truths, holy shit!

With a tagline of murder, mayhem, and madness, Tiger King follows the storyline of Joe Exotic, a zoo owner in bumfuck, Oklahoma, with a narrative arc that spirals out of control in a true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.

Buckle up.

There are gun-loving gay cowboys with mullets. The cults. The polygamy. The loss of limbs and teeth. Inbred tigers, ligers, and illegal lemurs. Excessive dynamite and guns lovingly adorned with pink camo.

Accidental suicide and haphazard murder plots. Flower crowns. So much leopard print. Failed grassroots governor elections. Expired Walmart meat pizzas. Hillbillies and their homemade country music videos featuring fat tigers.

Missing husbands. Meth and sequins. Florida. I can’t even.

Honestly, this show is batshit insane. AND IT’S REAL.

tiger king wildlife tourism

But what makes me sad about the train wreck human drama of this docu-series is that the stars, the tigers, are all but forgotten.

Did you know there are more captive tigers in the US than in the wild? How is breeding tigers in your redneck backyard still allowed? How are these pretend “wildlife sanctuaries” still allowed? And for god’s sake, how is Carole Baskin not in jail for murder/fraud/animal abuse and/or all of the above?

And yet no matter how vile it gets, how can I STILL feel compassion for these horrible people who put baby tigers in suitcases and carry guns around like candy?

Disguised behind the most insane group of characters you’ve ever laid eyes on, Tiger King shines a light on the whole heap of uncomfortable truths.

Last year National Geographic broke a significant feature that there are more tigers in private zoos and as pets in the USA than in the wild. What the hell?!

That has to stop now. Totally unacceptable for many reasons, one primary being that your neighbor might have a lion in his garage that could escape and eat you, the other major one being that lions belong in Africa, not rural Ohio, and tigers belong in India not fucking Oklahoma.

(sorry, this makes me absolutely livid)

tiger king wildlife tourism

tiger king wildlife tourism

These huge apex predators need massive amounts of territory and belong in the wild. Of course, that opens a whole other wormhole of issues from habitat loss to revenge killings to food loss, but that is where the bulk of conservation work should be focused.

You don’t need big cat sanctuaries in America if people aren’t allowed to have big cats as pets that end up needing “rescuing.”

The other main point is that real conservation doesn’t allow human interaction with animals. No yanking newborn tiger cubs from their moms to pose for selfies. No swimming with huge elephants. No cuddling drugged tigers for your new Tinder pic.

Big cats and endangered species belong in the wild or proper conservation centers without human interaction, period.


What’s more, I’m appalled at how many massive profiles on social media feature guys and their exotic pets. Instagram, why do you allow this kind of content? Unethical wildlife breeding and captive endangered species bred for photos, and profit are wrong. And it’s illegal. Almost every one of these profiles has faced criminal charges and received abuse warnings.

These zoos and rescue centers give the impression they are for conservation when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s important to question that when you see unethical wildlife practices.

For example, you can pay thousands of dollars to swim with a tiger or for a “volunteer” experience. Seriously? Your tiger selfies aren’t volunteering.

Where does that money go? Where do the profits from these sanctuaries go? How are they using the money they make from breeding and using tigers to fund wildlife conservation? How do they have so many baby tigers all the time? Why aren’t they with their mothers?

Baby tigers become useless in captivity after only 12 weeks because they’ve become too big and too dangerous to interact with people. After that, they usually just disappear.

Not a single one of these conservation tigers bred in America has ever been released back into the world. How could they when they’re raised and hand-fed by humans?

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching part for me is seeing photos of white tigers.

These white tigers are incredibly inbred, almost all are from the same white Bengal tiger that was sold into the US in the 1960s from India. There is no conservation reason to breed white tigers, why would you breed for a recessive gene like that if you were trying to save a population of endangered animals like? Your focus would be on genetic diversity.

These white tigers are purely bred for their beauty; even though most of them have so many inbred defects, they would have no hope of surviving in the wild. It’s just cruel.

Can someone please tell me how it’s ethical or moral to breed a lion with a tiger and then put it on a leash and keep it a cage so you can make money?

What’s sad is that this isn’t unique to America. Lions are bred for slaughter on canned hunting farms in South Africa, and China has a massive market for tiger parts (among all others) for traditional medicine and food. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

With many of these for-profit private zoos and exotic animal pet owners on Instagram masquerading as “conservation” projects, it’s never been more important to question where you chose to spend your tourism dollars.

Travelers love animals, me included, but it’s imperative to follow a few guidelines for responsibly interacting with wildlife.

tiger king wildlife tourism

tiger king wildlife tourism

At the end of the day, we have the power as consumers to stand up and say exploiting wildlife and endangered species is wrong. Dig deep and do your research before going to any of these places and have a thorough look around when you’re there. Does it look suitable for the animals?

Beware of buzzwords like “gives back to conservation,” sanctuary,” and “rescue.” Is the animal interacting in a way that isn’t normal? Has it been trained? Most of these training methods are based on fear and are cruel.

My god, imagine the impact it would have if all of the profits and expenses from exploiting exotic animals went towards conservation projects, what a difference that would make.

tiger king wildlife tourism

tiger king wildlife tourism

Listen, I get it. I would fucking love to cuddle a baby tiger. Their squeaks are so cute, and I know it’s super unique. But it’s not right. Those tigers don’t belong on my Instagram or in my arms.

One day I’ll follow in the footsteps of Rudyard Kipling to India and hopefully get to track wild tigers on safari in their natural habitat. But I will only do that in the most responsible way I can.

I’ve tracked leopards in Sri Lanka, lions in Botswana, cheetahs in South Africa, and elephants just about everywhere. It’s a real privilege that I’ve been able to go to these places, something I don’t ever take advantage of or forget.

It’s powerful and so special to see majestic, iconic creatures in the wild, where they belong. There is something so profoundly sad and degrading to such a mighty animal reduced to misery for the enjoyment of humans.

tiger king wildlife tourism

tiger king wildlife tourism

The second disturbing truth brought to light from Tiger King was just how disconnected I am from my American siblings.

I grew up in rural Virginia, about 15 minutes from West Virginia, so I am far from inexperienced when it comes to Trump-loving, gun-toting, uneducated rednecks. But this show was next level sad and made me face my privilege in an uncomfortable way.

If things are going to change, a whole heap of cultural mindsets would have to shift. With education and opportunity, anything is possible.

I think the US needs to work on prison reform, drug rehab programs, and healthy community programs for its people. If anything, Tiger King was a painful glimpse of what excessive gun freedom + meth + extreme poverty + lack of opportunity does to people.

tiger king wildlife tourism

So please, Netflix, stop streaming this outside of America; it’s’s not a good look for us.

And for the love of God, please never take a selfie with a baby endangered animal at one of these places!

Also, I think I’m going crazy. Send me something sane to binge-watch, please that won’t rile me up. Thanks.

Did you know about these seedy depths of wildlife tourism? Have you ever seen one of these fantastic animals in the wild? Where would you go on safari if you could? Spill!

tiger king wildlife tourism

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20 Comments on “How Netflix’s Tiger King reveals just how messed up wildlife tourism has become

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  1. I am so glad you were able to articulate my thoughts. it is so maddening that these places even exist, much less that they claim to be conservationist. It certainly doesn’t help when you have “celebrities” visiting, paying, playing, posing, and posting these pictures. It has got to stop. At the end all could think about was how sad I felt for the animals.

  2. As sad as it is to keep these wild animals caged up at home, everyone talks smak about how some rich Americans own wild animals. However, since everyone just like pointing fingers at Americans, nobody ever says anything about the people selling these animals for profit. Posing in a photo with a tiger it’s not harmful . India, Africa and Asia who allow these acts for a profit is more to be blamed than those who pay few bucks to take a photo with the animal. If these countries ban the sell or captures of these animals, none of this would be happening. So, who’s fault it really is here? Let’s also put the blame at the source of the problem not only at those who purchase these tigers.

    1. it’s too late, it’s not enough to ban the selling of exotic creatures from foreign countries into places like the US, the US has allowed for private breeding of these animals. So they’re not getting tigers from India, they’re getting inbred tigers from Florida and Oklahoma. In fact, they’re breeding them so much that the US is selling tigers BACK to places like Thailand.

  3. Thanks Liz for shedding light on this – absolutely terrible and a disaster. I don’t know why the authorities can’t regulate this.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with this article!!! Thank you for writing all my thoughts!! I’ve been binging it as well and am SHOCKED. Sadly there are a lot of road side zoos in Florida with big cats in tiny cages and it breaks my heart.

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