‘Tiger King’ sends wrong message

One week ago, like many other Americans stuck inside during this pandemic, I turned to Netflix and its new hit documentary Tiger King to ease my boredom. Remarkably, I was able to avoid all spoilers and opinions on the series for the five days it took me to watch all seven episodes. While watching the show in isolation, I formed some strong opinions of my own regarding the characters and their morality. As anyone who knows me will be quick to tell you, I love being a contrarian and try to find nuance in all situations, but I was disappointed in myself this time because the show felt so black and white to me. When I finally turned to the internet to see what people were saying about the show, I fully expected the majority to support my perspective. I was shocked to find that many people disagreed with me. Celebrities like Cardi B and Wiz Khalifa tweeted out support for the main character, Joe Exotic, with Cardi saying, “They did Joe so dirty over and over again” and, “Bout to start a gofundme account for Joe. He shall be free.” They are illustrating the unfortunate phenomenon of Americans not bothering to make informed judgments and instead reacting based on the material in front of them. The documentary was flawed for a number of reasons and its portrayal of the situation has been harmful to all tigers and one woman.

For anyone who has not seen the show, it centers around the feud between two tiger owners: Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin. Without taking into account any of their personality traits, the reality of the situation is that Joe owns a zoo off the highway and feeds the tigers expired meat from Walmart, while Carole has a rescue preserve that is certified by international wildlife standards and was voted one of the best charities in America. There are three key differences between Carole’s operation and ones like Joe’s: All of her cats are rescued, she does not allow the traumatic practice of “cub petting” to occur, and does not breed them once she has them. These distinctions are important because it means that she is part of the solution to the extinction of tigers globally, not the problem.

While Carole not breeding her tigers may seem counterintuitive, what she is fighting against in the United States is critical to the end of tiger poaching worldwide. The International Humane Society, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has tried to pressure Asian countries to tighten up their tiger hunting laws. They are not effective, though, because America’s loose regulations make them look like hypocrites. According to Newsweek, there are anywhere from 5,000 and 10,000 tigers in captivity in America (more than all of the wild), but nobody really knows how many given how poor records are kept. Joe Exotic contributes to this problem as it was reported that he killed at least five of his tigers. Now, Exotic and many other zookeepers may argue tigers won’t go extinct if we just keep breeding them, but this is flawed logic because a tiger raised in captivity and taken from its mother for cub petting is dramatically stunted and shows little resemblance to a tiger in the wild. According to a study done by Virginia Tech, when a tiger is not given time to bond with its mother and space to roam, it succumbs to abnormal depressive behaviors, including self-mutilation. 

While I will admit the documentary was very entertaining, in hindsight it was irresponsible of them to focus so much on the personalities and antics of the people and not on the actual well being of the tigers. Even worse, they painted Carol and Joe as the same levels of evil by devoting an entire episode to implying that Carole Baskin killed her second husband, Don Lewis. The presiding sheriff at the time, Chad Chronister, is quoted saying the police do not “have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that [Lewis] was killed” much less by Carole. The takeaway from the documentary should have been to donate to organizations like Carole’s Big Cat Rescue or to support legislation restricting the private ownership of Big Cats in America. Instead, it led people to send countless death threats to an innocent woman and set her charitable cause back permanently.