By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
We’ve known “Joe Exotic” (Joe Schreibvogel) for a long while, and we know him well. This week, we’re releasing additional footage from the Humane Society of the United States investigations focusing on Joe, Doc Antle and other wild animal breeders and traders that began in 2011. For those fighting to bring an end to the exotic animal industry in the United States, it’s ironic that the Netflix series “Tiger King” has made a household name of the tawdry tiger breeder and tout for the cub-petting industry. For some viewers, it might be easy to become fascinated by or even to sympathize with Joe and his misfit crew, notwithstanding his status as a convicted felon who killed tigers for the sake of convenience and hired a hit man to kill a sanctuary operator. But we cannot forget the reality that Joe Exotic and his associates have brazenly abused and preyed upon animals for decades. By highlighting the spectacle of his glittering jacket, two-tone hair and showboating hucksterism, the Netflix show consistently obscures the incalculable harm and cruelty for which he and other wild animal breeders and traders are responsible. Ultimately, too, it distracts us from the vital service of actual wildlife sanctuaries in the United States, and from our goal of passing the much-needed Big Cat Public Safety Act in the U.S Congress, which has received the important endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police.
You’ll hear again and again from animal breeders and traders of their good intentions and their “love” for animals. But as the HSUS’s investigative work concerning these big cat exhibitors demonstrates, business and profit motives always take precedence over animal welfare. The sort of love these folks profess isn’t the kind of love animals need, and in truth it means nothing because it inevitably gives way to cruelty, harsh treatment, and bald-faced exploitation of the animals they breed and keep.
Our investigations and the newly released footage confirm what we’ve seen again and again. There is a fixed pattern of mistreatment, abuse, and abandonment of tiger cubs and tigers who are ruthlessly exploited for cub petting and photo ops. The footage reveals additional instances of staff members abusing, hitting and mishandling animals, a pattern consistent across all the facilities investigated. In effect, cruelty is part of the business model.
As for the situations depicted in “Tiger King,” well, animals shouldn’t be in them at all. These ramshackle operations aren’t sanctuaries and these folks aren’t conservationists, either. There’s no need for and there’s certainly no social benefit from taking a selfie with a tiger cub whose next stop is a dismal backyard menagerie. Finally, there’s no reason society should bear the risks and costs of the many tragic incidents that have resulted from private ownership of wild animals.
That’s why the most timely step any caring citizen could take in the aftermath of Joe’s “fifteen minutes of fame” is to press for passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, H.R. 1380 and S. 2561, which would prohibit public contact with big cats of any age and ban the possession of big cat species like tigers and lions as pets.
This is also as good a time as any to support one of the accredited wildlife sanctuaries helping big cats and other wild animals in need. You can learn more about the legitimate animal sanctuary movement by visiting the websites of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, and the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. The sanctuaries listed on those sites are the real deal, places where love for animals has a true home, places of healing where animals receive the expert care and attention they require, and places of inspiration, which lift our sights to a nobler vision of what the human relationship with such majestic animals can and should be.
The true frame of reference for Joe and his friends is not the Netflix series; it’s the HSUS footage. These individuals are not merely oddballs, they’re dangerous outliers whose actions place the rest of us at great risk while producing the greatest misery for the animals they so shamelessly exploit.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.