For years I've been familiar with the key statistic: There are more tigers in captivity in the US than the 4,000 left in the wild. What good would it do me to watch this seven-part Netflix docu-series about a man known as Joe Exotic who keeps tigers in Oklahoma? Surely it would only serve to make me more angry at the lack of regulation that allowed this bizarre state of affairs, and at the people who perpetuate it.
But in the end, Tiger King didn't make me angry. It made me deeply, soul-crushingly sad.
The emotional journey from anger to sadness was far from linear — just like everyone else, I rode the shock-and-awe twists of colorful characters, polygamous marriages, murder mystery theories, vicious grudges and deluded political campaigns.
It wasn't until the end of the last episode that, as a lioness with a glazed look in her eyes seemed to be resting despondently behind the bars of her cage and a chimp reached its devastatingly humanlike fingers through the metal latticework, I was overcome with grief for the suffering of the many, many animals caught up in this sorry saga.
Exotic big cats are unlikely to be living their best lives in metal boxes off an Oklahoma highway.
The following morning I awoke before dawn with a kind of emotional hangover, obsessing over what had become of the tigers featured in the show (those still alive at least) and feeling myself sinking into a pit of despair. Any enjoyment I'd gotten from the show was transient. Watching it left me feeling grubby, depressed and unfulfilled, like I do after reading celebrity tabloid gossip.
Perhaps I'm more sensitive than usual due to our current dystopian scenario. But there has also never been a better time for us to watch a show like Tiger King. As we sit locked in our houses, watching the animals locked in their cages, we may find ourselves primed to empathize with them.
Just like the big cats of Tiger King are having their basic needs met in captivity, most of us have everything we need to survive life under lockdown, but how many of us can truly say we're thriving? I suspect it's largely the same for animals kept in cages for the amusement of humans. Exotic big cats, which in the wild roam vast territories, are unlikely to be living their best lives in metal boxes off an Oklahoma highway.
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There are perhaps few things more mesmerizing in this world than a tiger — the grace with which it carries its formidable muscled frame and the arresting vision of brilliantly striped feline features could be the dictionary definition of awe-inspiring. And when you see something beautiful, it's often accompanied by the urge to touch it, hold it, own it — conquer it, even. But a part of being human is being able to regulate impulses when they're not appropriate.
Animal rights organizations including the World WIldlife Fund and PETA are consistently clear on this point: Keeping tigers (and other wild animals) in unaccredited private collections, handling them and allowing members of the public to interact with them are not only inappropriate behaviors, but are also deeply harmful to the creatures and not compatible with conservation measures designed to protect them for generations to come.
"Welfare suffers, exploitation is rampant, and the risks to the animals involved, the people who look after them, and the wider public is frightening," Will Travers, executive president of animal rights organization Born Free, told me over email.
What Joe Exotic and fellow big cat overlord Doc Antle, who's also featured extensively in the series, have in common isn't their love of animals, but what appears to be their absolute inability to resist taking total possession of the things they desire — women, men or tigers. Both claim to love tigers, yet both are accused of abusing and even euthanizing the animals when they deem it necessary.
A theme throughout the show is this blurred line between love and exploitation. The speed at which affection turns to callousness is shocking to witness, as are the damaging, even fatal, consequences for the victims — both human and animal.
Some of the most distressing scenes involve the exploitation of tiger cubs, which at one point we see Exotic ripping away from their mothers when they're mere minutes old. The US Animal Welfare Act limits public contact with tiger cubs between the ages of 8-12 weeks to discourage breeding, but this doesn't seem to have persuaded him to stop.
Aside from the abuse we witness in Tiger King, breeding tigers in captivity without a thought to translocating them as part of reintroduction programs does little to support recovering wild tiger populations. According to the WWF, breeding in captivity is likely to result only in birth defects and health issues due to long-term in-breeding.
There's no understanding or recognition of this from Exotic, when he says that by breeding cubs he should be viewed as a conservation hero. It's hard to imagine watching the show and being under any illusion that Exotic or Antle either care about or understand what tiger conservation entails.
Both during the show and in follow-up interviews, the directors are keen to make it known that they believe this lack of understanding extends to Carole Baskin, the CEO of bona fide animal rights organization Big Cat Rescue, whom Joe Exotic is ultimately convicted of plotting to kill. (He's serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison.)
"There was a lack of intellectual curiosity to really go and understand or even see these animals in the wild," said co-director Eric Goode in an interview with E! News. "Certainly, Carole really had no interest in seeing an animal in the wild. … The lack of education, frankly, was really interesting — how they had built their own little utopias and really were only interested in that world and the rules they had created."
Unfortunately for Baskin, she doesn't come off well in the show, largely due to the extensive focus on her personal life. But regardless of what the directors might say, her conservation credentials do stand up to scrutiny. She, like all the animal rights organizations mentioned in this piece, is a fierce proponent of the US Big Cat Public Safety Act.
It doesn't feel fair that the directors cast her in this light, when the show was hardly a rigorous study of US conservation initiatives. Not that it was ever supposed to be.
"We knew we didn't want to make a film that was strictly advocacy and that was depressing," Goode said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. "We wanted to figure out how to make this film interesting and really look at the psychology of the people that were involved."
Goode didn't respond to a request for additional comment.
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It succeeds in this — crafting a portrait of the kind of people who are drawn into the world of big cats. But by sensationalizing these people, the show is equally depressing in a whole different way. The result is that the subsequent discourse around Tiger King has been almost as dispiriting as the show itself, focusing almost solely on its central characters rather than on the animals.
"While focusing on the characters and their crazy (and, in some cases, illegal) antics, Tiger King obfuscates what should be highlighted most — the extreme cruelty of keeping wild animals in captivity, both in the abuse displayed on screen and that which is inherent in any captive situation," said Travers of Born Free.
There's a pervading sense that many characters in the show are ruled by a dangerous combination of delusion, narcissism and arrogance. In building their own universes and padding them with nodding yes-men, everyone is on a power trip that got way out of control a decade or more back. The dead-eyed lack of compassion and respect that exists between the humans is also reflected in the way they relate to the cats.
If conservation measures are to succeed, the absolute opposite set of attributes is required. We must be entirely selfless to the point of putting the welfare of animals above and before our own desires, lust for money and petty in-fighting at every juncture. The strength of big cats should be feared and respected, it shouldn't be bullied out of them or viewed as something to tame or master.
It's not until the close of the show that Exotic allows himself to admit he might have done wrong by the animals in his care. This flicker of honesty brings him nowhere close to redemption, and it offers no cause for hope to viewers emotionally invested in the fate of his animals.
The cheap thrills we've experienced along the way do nothing to move the needle on advocacy efforts, and neither do they lift us out of the dark place in which we find ourselves today. I cannot help but feel there's a missed opportunity in here somewhere, and it's made losers of us — humans and animals — all.