Opinion: Everyone’s talking about Tiger King for the wrong reasons

Tiger King

Hey all you cool cats and kittens.

I bet you’re tired of hearing that cringey greeting by now – I know I am. But since it’s Earth Week, I thought it was worth talking about a few things that got largely overlooked in online discussions about the pandemic era’s most buzzworthy Netflix show: Tiger King.

As an avid binge-watcher of any twisted Netflix true crime series I can find, I was pumped when I came across the Tiger King trailer on March 10th. It seemed that the makers of the Fyre Festival exposé had found a story that had everything – a murder for hire plot, a cult(s), drug cartels, unintentionally cheesy music videos and the most important thing – tigers.

I was so excited, in fact, I immediately organized a Netflix Watch Party with friends for the night of the first day it was released – March 20th. Little did I know that within those 10 days, most of the east and west coast would come under strict social distancing orders, giving a large part of the US population enough time to watch the show and flood Instagram, Twitter and TikTok with Tiger King memes for weeks.

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As anyone who sat through the mentally exhausting series can attest, Tiger King’s focus was much more on exploiting the bizarre human characters involved in the industry and did very little in the way of articulating or educating the audience about why exotic wildlife trade is a major, world-wide problem. This is an unfortunate miss, given the incredible relevance this topic has to current events. Just a few important topics that were not and could have been covered more in depth:

  • How can consumers identify responsible zoos and sanctuaries? What questions can consumers ask and what should they look for before they visit a zoo or sanctuary and pay the price of admission? Finding out if the organization is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is a start. Organizations that offer “cub-petting” should be an immediate red flag.
  • What are captive-breeding programs and why is the type of captive breeding being done by Joe Exotic and others in the industry so irresponsible? Legitimate captive breeding programs, such as Species Survival Programs, exist with the ultimate goal of helping an endangered species survive in the wild. They should never exist to create hybrid animals for entertainment like “ligers” that would never occur in nature.
  • What happens to exotic animals when they’re confiscated or sold to an organization? Was anyone else wondering about the fate of Joe Exotic’s cats and other animals after his incarceration? What happened to the ones he sold to zoos? What happens to exotic animals if they’re confiscated by police?
  • What are the dangers of zoonotic diseases carried by wildlife and how do they spread to humans? The weight of available evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus that has caused the current pandemic originated from a live animal market in China, a country that consumes an incredible amount of wildlife for food, traditional medicine, and pets. Bats and pangolins (both mammals like tigers) are the prime suspects as having been the host for this coronavirus that made the genetic leap to humans.

Equally disappointing to the lack of exploration of these topics and also because of it, is that fact that Joe Exotic has emerged as something of a folk hero. As of this writing, a Change.org petition asking President Trump to pardon Joe Exotic has amassed over 55,000 signatures and counting. This is more than problematic. Not only did Joe Exotic exploit and treat animals inhumanely for profit, he also manipulated and treated his human employees horribly, several of which were clearly in a vulnerable mental state because of obvious drug addiction.

If the onslaught of memes following the show are any indicator, Joe Exotic’s archnemesis Carole Baskin would be the person audiences felt was the series’ villain, yet from a conservation perspective she is clearly in the right. Putting aside the question of her potential yet unproven involvement in a homicide or her own narcissistic motivations (OK, I’ll admit those Carole Baskin TikTok videos are funny), Baskin’s operation at Big Cat Rescue and her work as an activist are on the right side of animal welfare and wildlife conservation. Joe Exotic and his affiliates are 100% on the wrong side.

At the end of the series, (*Spoiler Alert*) Joe Exotic deservedly wound up in a cage of his own. It’s an irony that pales in comparison to the irony that audiences watched the series from the forced confinement of home due to a pandemic that in all likelihood is a result of the irresponsible trade in wildlife. Although the series may have overlooked the animal welfare and conservation implications of the story, my hope during this strange Earth Week is that ultimately the series generates conversation and gets people thinking about how we can solve the enormous problems caused by the unscrupulous trade in wildlife.

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