*Tiger King spoiler warning*
Unless you've successfully found some sort of digital rock under which to hide from trending news, you've probably heard of the Tiger King by now. This hit Netflix documentary chronicles the bizarre and turbulent rivalry between two tiger- and lion-obsessed park owners in America. The first we meet is the inimitable Joe Exotic, real name Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel), who first opened his 16-acre exotic animal park in memoriam of his brother. The second is Carole Baskin, a self-confessed American animal rights enthusiast who owns Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit sanctuary in Tampa, Florida.
The two butt horns repeatedly over the correct treatment of lions and tigers in parks and sanctuaries, with Exotic's approach leaning towards profitable entertainment while Baskin's Big Cat Rescue is more centered on rehabilitation and preserving wild behaviors. Without going into too much detail, the story is a decades-long dispute involving embezzlement, a presidential run, and confirmed and unconfirmed reports of murder and attempted murder. Where the two share similarities, however, are in their vast collections of exotic cats, including tigers, white tigers, lions, and even ligers (a cross between a lion and a tiger).
As the documentary states in its opening, there are now more tigers in captivity in America than there are in the wild. Estimates put the stats at around 5,000 in captivity compared to just 3,200 in the wild. So how exactly did America, a country that has no natural populations of tigers, come to be home to so many?
The exotic pet trade is a booming business in America, as some wealthy residents feel the need to adorn their homes and gardens with exotic animals. The majority of America’s tigers come from private collections, which aren’t held to the same stringent regulations as breeding programs in zoos and sanctuaries. In order to receive official accreditation as a zoo or aquarium in the US, parks that want to house animals have to provide evidence that they will maintain a high enough degree of animal welfare, visitor education, health and safety, and record keeping. If a center fails to meet these requirements, they won't be recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums who implement the sanctions. Joe Exotic's animal park was what's colloquially known as a "roadside zoo", which is a term reserved for substandard animal parks that have been denied accreditation.
Where animals in accredited zoos and sanctuaries are bred, this is done with the utmost respect for subspecies' lineage and strict record-keeping of the animals' parental lines is shared between institutions to avoid inbreeding and breeding across subspecies. Private collections, such as Joe Exotic's, can't be used to aid conservation efforts as their lineage is a mystery.
There are six extant tiger subspecies in the world: Sumatran, Amur, Indian, South China, Malayan, and Indo-Chinese. Joe Exotic’s collection is what he refers to as generic, meaning hybridization has occurred by breeding the subspecies together. None of these tigers are naturally white, but avid fans of the documentary might’ve spotted that Joe Exotic had a few of these in his wild cat arsenal. White tigers aren’t a subspecies but actually the product of human engineering. Their distinctive look is the result of a genetic mutation that turns the traditional orange and black fur of a Bengal tiger, the subspecies to which white tigers belong, to white and black. This trait is an example of a recessive gene, meaning that for an offspring to have the coveted white and black fur, both of its parents must be carriers of the rare gene.
Most white tigers can be linked back to a single individual captured near the Indian city of Rewa in 1951 called Mohan. Breeders extensively inbred Mohan for the rest of his life and from there the white offspring were selectively inbred to give rise to further generations of white tigers. Inbreeding is a genetic disaster for mammals, giving rise to a host of recessive genes that code for a myriad of health problems.
Breeding programs undertaken by zoos and sanctuaries are driven by the best chances of giving rise to healthy populations and expanding the genetic diversity of dwindling populations. This contrasts to the motivations of breeding programs undertaken by private collectors who seek to create as many rare and sought-after varieties of tiger and care little for any malformed cubs produced along the way.
While Joe Exotic’s charisma and unconventional lobbying content won over the hearts of many, it’s important to note that his park was likely damaging to the animals housed there. Cubs are only deemed safe for handling until 12 weeks, after which time they're too large and unable to be controlled. In order to keep up his highly popular tiger cub experience for visitors, Joe Exotic bred his small (in terms of genetic diversity) collection of animals, resulting in inbred and hybridized animals that can give rise to genetic malformations such as heart defects, scoliosis of the spine, and mental impairments.
We also see in the documentary that Joe Exotic is keeping the tiger cubs in a child's crib in his bedroom. Like human babies, tiger offspring need to be with their mothers after they're born, but for entry-fee seeking animal parks such as Joe Exotic's, the motivation is to remove them from their mothers early. This ensures the female tiger will be ready to mate again much sooner, making the tiger cub production line a faster and more efficient process, even if it is at the cost of the cub's wellbeing.
Unsurprisingly, tiger cubs don't do well with human interaction. Removed from their parents, the public petting experience can be stressful with lots of unfamiliar people, sounds, and smells. Furthermore, as seen in the case of the Bronx Zoo tiger that tested positive for COVID-19, wild animals aren't immune to human illnesses and this kind of up-close and personal interaction isn't good for the young tiger's immature immune system. For many infant mammals, play is also an essential part of development in teaching them the athleticism that they'll later rely on for hunting or avoiding predation. Without toys, wide-open spaces, and access to normal cub-sibling interactions, the animals grow up without these instincts.
Later on in the series, we see Joe Exotic panic selling tigers in response to his financial issues, further perpetuating the problem of growing private collections. Naive owners almost always eventually abandon their animals when they clock that a human can’t control a 225-kilogram (500-pound) tiger, and sanctuaries with dwindling resources are regularly lumbered with the responsibility of keeping these discarded animals alive.
Watch the documentary, enjoy it for all it’s mind-boggling plot twists and complex workplace relationships, but please, don’t forget the core message: keeping tigers as pets is tantamount to animal abuse. Let’s keep the wild cats for the wild.