By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The original “Tiger King” Netflix series was a pandemic phenomenon with a train-wreck fascination for millions of viewers and a whole cast of unsavory characters. But the sideshow weirdness of the personalities involved kept many viewers from focusing on the big cat industry’s epidemic of cruelty.
Fortunately, it hasn’t escaped the notice of the court system. One of the program’s central figures, Jeff Lowe, has been permanently prohibited from exhibiting animals by a federal judge in the Eastern District of Oklahoma. Kevin “Doc” Antle, who is based in South Carolina and one of the United States’s most prolific tiger breeders, will go on trial for wildlife trafficking charges in mid-2022. Joe Exotic, the principal figure in the franchise, will soon be resentenced under orders from a federal appeals court, but even in the case of a sentence reduction, he’s finished as a breeder and exhibitor, and he’s going to spend a long time in prison for his plot to murder a sanctuary operator and for killing tigers.
By focusing on the eccentricities of big cat breeders and exhibitors, the Tiger King series glossed over the suffering they cause. Breeders rip cubs away from their mothers at birth, depriving them of the bonding essential to their development. They treat the cubs harshly to control their behavior, deny them proper care and charge customers to hold and be photographed with them. It’s stressful and exhausting for the infants to be passed from one stranger to another week after week, and once they’ve grown too large for handling, they’re sold or transferred to substandard settings like roadside zoos, magic shows or private individuals who keep them as “pets.” Worst of all, repetitive breeding to replace the aged-out cubs ensures that one generation of newborns after another will suffer the same fate.
These facts about the big cat industry provide ample rationale for state and federal legislatures to ban the possession of big cat species by unqualified parties and to prohibit public contact with big cats. At the federal level the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263/S. 1210), with more than 250 co-sponsors in the House and 46 in the Senate, would bring an end to this. At the state level, we’ve helped to pass bans on public contact with big cats and other species in Nevada and Virginia and similar legislation is being considered in other states.
America’s big cat breeders and exhibitors serve no conservation purpose. Their businesses are little more than tiger mills, feeding the exotic animal trade in the U.S. And they provide no refuge to animals. True sanctuaries do not buy, trade, sell, breed or permit hands-on contact with their cats. They provide full veterinary care, and take every necessary step to meet animals’ nutritional, psychological and physical needs. Most importantly, they provide permanent, safe homes.
The global implications of the problem are serious. Tiger farms in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam supply tiger parts for the trade in wildlife-based supposed medicinal products, jeopardizing prospects for the survival of the 4,000 tigers in the wild. Weak regulation in the U.S. effectively condones such practices and undermines the U.S. role in international efforts to confront the illegal tiger trade and other big cat trafficking issues on the world stage.
Many Americans have learned the hard way that, even in captivity, big cats are wild animals who can and do escape from shoddy housing, posing a substantial danger to the public. Since 1990, more than 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have occurred across the U.S., killing five children and 19 adults and injuring hundreds more. These incidents force first responders, usually law enforcement officers with limited training and resources, to risk their lives in efforts to subdue and capture the animals.
In addition to being a public safety hazard and a cost to law enforcement and other public agencies that must respond when incidents occur, roadside zoos are a burden on animal protection organizations and sanctuaries like Black Beauty Ranch, which take in animals confiscated from exhibitors and private owners.
We’re tackling the blight of big cat operations through our own direct care work and public education outreach, support for sanctuary accreditation, big cat-centered coalitions, and the pursuit of sensible legislation at every level of government. These breeding and exhibition facilities are the engines of an industry that produces incalculable animal suffering, one that jeopardizes the safety of the public and our first responders and one that plays no credible role in wildlife conservation. We won’t miss them once they’re gone.
Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.