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.
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.
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?
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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)
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.
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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?
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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?
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I just had my 60th birthday. I wanted to come hang out with one of my favorite big cats, Apollo here is only five years old and already weighs over 900 pounds and stands 11.5 feet tall on his hind legs. When I asked my partner Moksha what her favorite thing she learned about ligers over the last 20 years of hanging out she said “he’s bilingual as he speaks both lion and tiger” She doesn’t look 40 does she. The world largest cat. Over 900 lbs and 11.5 ft tall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
20 Comments on “How Netflix’s Tiger King reveals just how messed up wildlife tourism has become”
I agree with your article; the last few years have thankfully seen some slow but sure progress in the public perception of hands-on experiences with wild animals such as tigers and elephants.
I do find it strange that koala cuddling is still seen as a widely acceptable practice; I’m interested to know your thoughts on this as I have seen a selfie you posted on social media of yourself cuddling a koala. Do you feel differently about this experience in retrospect? No judgement here, just interested to know.
– a conservation field-worker
I have cuddled koalas years ago but don’t think I would now that I’m working more in conservation and have woken up to a lot of the issues behind it.
Thank you so much for posting and shedding light on some of these issues! I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about them for fear of engaging with others who disagree and I appreciate that you’re not because it helps so much to educate the public. For something inspiring to watch check out this list of free Banff Mountain Film Festival films. It’s been keeping me sane 🙂 https://www.climbing.co.za/2020/03/banff-mountain-film-festival-films-online-for-free/
Please go to bigcatrescue.org for their refutation of the claims in the series. Their post is exhaustively detailed, and so wild it would be difficult to make up. Really bizarre stuff. It needs to be considered though, for the sake of fairness. What’s extremely plausible, based on my experience with Baskin, is that the scummy breeders/zoo owners have been targeted by BCR for their horrible practices and used the series to retaliate. Netflix ran with it for the added drama. BCR was told the series would be the Blackfish of wild animal breeding and that’s not what Netflix chose to do.
I have read it all but to me it’s really unclear on where their money goes, how does it go towards conservation and exactly how that benefits endangered species. That’s the biggest issue.
I’ve been lucky to see so many amazing animals in the wild – lions, cheetahs, elephants, leopard (Kenya), and just recently tigers (India) plus a rescue centre in India for elephants (legitimate according to my Googling..).
I didn’t realise there were more tigers in the USA than in the wild 🙁
The canned / trophy hunting you describe is horrific. Bears too.
As for something to binge watch 🙂 Line of Duty, Longmire. The West Wing is probably long before your time but if you can find it streaming anywhere, enjoy!
I love Wesst Wing!