'Tiger King' revisited: How Netflix's hit series unexpectedly led to better animal welfare

·5 min read

There won’t be any thank you cards, gift baskets or well wishes for Joe ExoticBhagavan “Doc” Antle, Jeff Lowe or any of the other animal profiteers who populated "Tiger King."

Even so, three years after the release of Netflix’s hit show that captivated Americans at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hucksters who traveled the country and operated exploitative cub petting attractions played a role in helping expose the dark side of an industry that is all about animal abuse.

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Under the harsh spotlight of a national audience, the cruel practices of the cub-petting industry – where newborn tigers are snatched from their mothers at birth and used for selfies and cuddling – are now banned. It’s one of the many lessons of “Tiger King.”

Congress passed bill to protect big cats from exploitation

While the country guffawed at the dangerous rivalry between Carole Baskin and the now-incarcerated Joe Exotic, the little-known postscript of this series is the bipartisan support for the recently passed Big Cat Public Safety Act and its implications for animal welfare – a bright positive step in the quest to build a world where people don’t abuse animals.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, was one of the wild animal attraction operators featured in the Netflix series "Tiger King."
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, was one of the wild animal attraction operators featured in the Netflix series "Tiger King."

Our collective fascination with tigers dates back centuries and spans culture to culture. These graceful, intelligent, powerful creatures are some of the world’s most impressive and captivating species. From birth, many children are taught to recognize and appreciate tigers. In the United States, tigers are cultural touchstones, even though they’re not native.

That’s why for decades, cub petting operations such as the ones featured in the series have had such a strong allure. The families who visit these slipshod operations to pet and take selfies with cubs are making this journey because they love animals. For many parents, they want their children to love animals. For others, there’s a growing interest in posing for photos with wild animals – born, perhaps, of wonder, affection and a desire to connect.

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But what “Tiger King” laid bare is that the cub-petting industry is devastating to the animals. From birth, cubs are isolated from their parents and consigned to shabby roadside operations and pseudo-sanctuaries where they are handed from one customer to the next, day after day.

Once the cubs become adult tigers, they are forced into punishing cycles of repetitious breeding, killed to make space for new cubs or confined in somebody’s barren backyard enclosure. It’s a tragic, sad life for animals who can live up to 20 years in captivity.

Captive animals can pose safety risk

Beyond the wild cats, these operations imperil people, many of them kids. While all wild animals can be dangerous within the context of public contact, some are especially so because of their physical strength, sharp teeth and powerful jaws: The record of human death, maiming and severe injury resulting from interactions gone wrong is grim.

Local police, emergency responders and animal control officers are called to respond to cases of animals injuring people and could find themselves walking into a terrifying interaction with scared, predatory wildlife.

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Finally, disease transmission from animals to humans and vice versa presents its own threats, in the form of parasitic, fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, including rabies. For example, captive wild animals are at risk of being euthanized for rabies testing if they bite someone during handling. And people are spreading diseases, including COVID-19, to big cats and other species.

It took animal advocates nearly a decade to steer the Big Cat Public Safety Act through Congress before it passed in the House on a bipartisan vote of 278-134 and by unanimous consent in the Senate last winter. They had been working at it long before most people had heard of Joe Exotic.

In December, President Joe Biden signed the act into law, banning both public contact with big cats and keeping them as pets. The United States will also finally get a full picture of big cat ownership nationwide: The new law requires owners of lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs or cougars to register their animals with the United States by June 18.

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There’s still more to do. We need broader and better regulation, and soon, because the captive exotics industry has already been moving on to offer up a staggering array of other species for petting and holding.

Most animal lovers are blithely unaware of the harm these encounters are doing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2021 data, of 2,182 licensed exhibitors, nearly half offered public interactions with animals, a nearly twofold increase from 2019.

And a Humane Society investigation found that in more than 25 states families can cozy up to bear cubs, kangaroos, lemurs, otters, sloths and wallabies – just a few of the wild species offered up at hundreds of facilities across the United States.

If “Tiger King” teaches just one thing, we hope it’s this: If you love animals and want to instill an appreciation of animals among your friends and family, the best thing you can do is say no to captive animal petting, selfies or other close contact.

Wild animals do not want contact with people – and holding them often causes stress and harm. The facilities that offer these experiences can persist only with our dollars funding them, so choosing to walk away is a simple, everyday decision we can make to protect animals and reject cruelty.

Kitty Block is president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States and CEO of Humane Society International. Sara Amundson is the chief government relations officer for the Humane Society of the United States and president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Netflix's 'Tiger King,' Joe Exotic helped to reduce animal abuse