An Exotic Dilemma

An Exotic Dilemma

When you add big cats, cults, and the southern states of the U.S. all into one production, you’re bound to create something entertaining. Fortunately, a little over two months ago we were gifted with just that; Tiger King. However, many have forgotten the feud between Joe Exotic of G.W. Zoo and Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue wasn’t the original storyline. The series was to focus on the endangered species held captive in private zoos, as well as the breeding, selling, and trading of such animals. The docu-series pivots its focus away from this issue, dedicating the rest of the series to the conspiracy that Baskin may have murdered her husband. While this is a bizarre tale that doesn’t have to try hard to amass attention, the mistreatment of animals became a side story. The animal entertainment industry is one that has always been problematic, in which its faults are often under-publicized and willfully ignored.

Just as Tiger King neglected its original purpose, so did the vast majority of the audience. The breeding of tigers, as well as other acts of abuse such as captivity and starvation, are issues that are not only present in privately owned zoos, but in many institutions holding animals in captivity. The ongoing response to Tiger King focusses almost solely on the feud between Exotic and Baskin, leaving the animals kept in captivity ignored. The additional episode released in early April shies away from the topic of animal cruelty, painting its subjects more like celebrities than criminals. 

Despite Joe Exotic being in prison on counts of animal abuse as well as murder-for-hire, innumerable amounts of people online are directly or indirectly supporting him. On Tik-Tok, over 3.1 million videos have been created using the audio of a Joe Exotic centered song parody of “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion. Celebrities like Cardi B have directly advocated for Joe Exotic to be freed from prison, while others like Jared Leto casually dress up like them, unaware that their efforts are moving attention away from the real issue.

Each zoo in the docu-series depicts tigers in overcrowded cages, harshly acclimatized to their man-made environments, being paraded for entertainment. At Joe Exotic’s zoo, he is failing to provide the necessary amounts of food, leaving the tigers to suffer as they are on display for high-paying visitors. In multiple shots, tigers as young as 6-weeks old are seen posing with young social media influencers for profitable photographs in a new form of animal entertainment. According to Exotic, he can profit up to one hundred thousand dollars off a cub before they even turn 16 weeks old by selling “playtime” and photos with the young animals. Photos with cubs have their own value in the social media world, as they have the potential to boost someone’s success. Turning cubs, or any endangered species, into an economic advantage is just another form of animal abuse that makes the series so painful to watch.

Those at Bhagavan “Doc” Antle’s roadside zoo Myrtle Beach Safari and Tim Stark’s property Wildlife in Need pride themselves in being “saviours” of endangered species through their continuous breeding efforts, when in reality they are only harming the animals further. Unfortunately, many of the tigers bred in these zoos will likely never be released to the wild and even if they were, they would be ill equipped to deal with their new surroundings. Baskin stated within the first five minutes of the series that her “mission is to ban the private possession of [tigers],” all the while claiming that her property is a sanctuary instead. A true sanctuary promises to take in and care for abused, neglected, and abandoned animals for life. Meanwhile, Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue fails to provide lifetime care, continuing to give the public access to endangered species and keeping their priorities on profit before care.

Animal captivity is a problem that goes beyond what you see in popular media, transpiring into the outside world, where many NGOs and other private groups are working hard to ensure the safety of animals. The Endangered Species Act, signed by over 100 countries– including the U.S.– made it so one cannot buy, trade, or barter to obtain endangered species. As many of the animals in this series are considered endangered, these enterprises are walking the fine line between legal and illegal activity. Tim Stark, a zoo-owner that was shafted from the series as it began to revolve around Exotic and Baskin, is the only one in addition to Exotic that has been reprimanded for such activities. Many of the zookeepers are reaping the benefits of Tiger King’s popularity and will continue to do so as their fame increases with every interview, social media post, and impersonation centered on them. 

The series lost its true focus, but that doesn’t mean our attention should only be paid to the conspiracies. Animal abuse is a crime that is rarely discussed and yet it is the one that ties together the stars of Tiger King. We should be considering how our actions affect those around us, including animals. In our own lives, we can consider where the animals we are interacting with came from and where they should currently be. Taking the time to choose to get a pet from a shelter over a breeder, researching a real sanctuary to visit instead of a zoo, and thinking critically about the messages in Tiger King are all productive actions that can be taken to support ethical relationships with animals.

I can remember going to various birthday parties when I was a child where small reptiles and rodents were passed around the circle for us all to hold. Such an activity has the potential to foster a deep appreciation for animals, but it can also further support the notion that animals’ sole purpose is to provide entertainment. We don’t have to live by the same ideas we had when we were younger though. Tiger King poses a moral dilemma that transcends the confines of the show: to watch mindlessly as we did when we didn’t know any better or to think critically about the information we are consuming.


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