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Tiger King makes for great TV. But we need to talk about the animal abuse and exploitation.

The stories in Netflix’s Tiger King are undeniably… bizarre. There’s “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet” Joe Exotic, cult-like zoo owner Doc Antle, and cat rescuer Carole Baskin, who has been under a cloud of suspicion for more than 20 years after her husband mysteriously disappeared.

Plus there’s about 200 other characters so strange it’s hard to believe this is all real. But it… is.

What’s also real is the animal abuse. But in Tiger King, the abuse of the big cats and other animals – including chimps, monkeys, snakes and elephants – owned by those profiled in the series took a backseat to the meth, music videos and murder-for-hire plot.

Watch the trailer for Tiger King. Post continues below video.

Video via Netflix

That’s not to say those things were not worthy of the story. Of course they are. Besides shining a light on terrible behaviour and crime among animal collectors, it made for shocking, and bloody entertaining, viewing.

There’s a reason it’s all anyone can talk about right now (besides that whole global pandemic thing).

But for a docuseries about roadside zoos and the big cat industry, the show only offered a glimpse into the suffering and cruelty of the animals caught up with the likes of Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe.

What Tiger King showed.

Throughout the series, many of Exotic’s 200+ tigers are seen pacing their small, ill-suited cages. At points, we see animals panting and staring into the distance. There’s also a scene of Exotic’s workers collecting spoiled food handouts from a local Walmart to feed to the tigers, and of Jeff Lowe smuggling cubs inside suitcases.

We see news footage of animals shot by authorities after a collector released them, and early on are introduced to the practice of people carting big cats to shopping malls for petting and photo ops. We’re left to infer this is exploitative and cruel, but there’s no explicit mention as to how and why.

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The series showed tigers giving birth to cubs, and in one case we watched as Exotic used a metal pole to pull a newborn from its mother immediately after birth.

There’s a scene in which Exotic poses with tiger cubs who are so young they haven’t even opened their eyes yet. Tiger cubs usually open their eyes at about one or two weeks old, but viewers were not told any of this information.

Throughout the show, we’re shown footage of members of the public taking photos and playing with tiger cubs, with no explanation as to what happens behind-the-scenes for that to be possible.

tiger king netflix
Image: Netflix.

At one point, we see a cross-eyed white tiger - a defect inbred white tigers are prone to. White tigers, shown in all seven episodes, are not a species in their own right as many people think and are created due to a recessive gene - meaning most, or more likely all white tigers in captivity, are products of inbreeding.

White tigers are also more prone to genetic problems including shortened tendons of the forelegs, club foot, kidney problems, arched or crooked backbone and twisted neck.

And it's not just the tigers: After a fire burns down Exotic's studio, he mentions it was also "habitat" for his alligators. It's said casually, and there's no real explanation as to why these creatures were being kept in very small indoor pools.

Speaking to Mamamia, Ben Pearson, campaign executive at World Animal Protection said while Tiger King was more about the eccentric characters and their lifestyles, he hoped viewers would also notice the animal exploitation and cruelty.

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Will Tiger King help the tiger cause at all? Post continues below audio?

"I hope viewers saw beyond this and recognised the wildlife parks and zoos featured on the show were exploiting wild animals for money, and this is cruel," he said.

Danika Oroil Morway, county director of Four Paws Rescue USA, agreed, telling Mamamia the impact of animal experiences was not highlighted as much as it could've been, taking a back seat to the human drama.

"We're hearing about Carole and we're hearing about Joe Exotic and all the other characters, but we're not really hearing about these animals and the tragedy that's happening to big cats in captivity," she said.

The reality for captive animals.

Animal rights organisations, including PETA, have stated roadside zoos and private animal ownership in the United States is even worse than Tiger King lets on.

In 2006, a PETA investigation uncovered animals being kicked, deprived of food, blasted with pressurised hoses and fire extinguishers and denied vet treatment at Exotic's GW Zoo (you can watch the video here - warning, it is graphic).

tiger king animal abuse
Image: Netflix.

Following this investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put Exotic on probation for 18 months and ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine for nearly 200 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

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We're told, mainly through early commentary by Exotic's rival Carole Baskin, that zoos like Exotic's are bad, but Tiger King never really dives into why, and what the consequences are of petting or taking a photo with a cute, small, should-be-wild animal.

Caged tigers.

World Animal Protection told Mamamia tigers are solitary creatures, who can have an 80 to 100-kilometre territory to roam. Tigers kept in cages have only a tiny fraction of the space they'd have in the wild.

They're also unable to exercise many of their natural instincts.

tiger king animal abuse
Image: Netflix.

"The reality is many of these animals will only ever see the world through metal bars, they will only ever feel hard concrete beneath their paws, and they will never get to experience their most basic predatory instinct – a hunt," Pearson said.

"Instead, they are taken away from their mothers as tiny cubs, forced to interact with people or perform tricks."

Tiger breeding breeds suffering.

Tigers that are bred for the entertainment and traditional medicine industries endure a lifetime of cruelty and abuse in captivity.

In the cases of Joe Exotic and others featured in Tiger King, tigers are bred for money-making through selling, selfies and petting.

Captive tigers are constant victims of irresponsible tourism and it shouldn't come as a surprise that their suffering has only increased as the demand for selfies and photo-sharing on social media has grown.

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Removing a cub from its mother - as we saw Exotic do on screen - is inhibiting. Although some tendencies are instinctive, much of a tiger's skill in hunting prey is taught to them through maternal training, according to World Animal Protection.

"Animals bred in captivity have no learned behaviours to survive in the wild, for example to hunt for food," Pearson told Mamamia.

"What’s more, cubs are separated from their mothers at birth, whereas in the wild they would have family structures to teach them about survival."

Tiger cubs in the wild typically spend up to two years with their mothers.

"I really do hope that seeing those baby tiger cubs ripped away from their mother while she's still birthing them, I hope that struck a chord with people that this is an inherently cruel practice," Morway said.

"And the animal suffering goes far beyond just the moment they're taken away from their mother. It continues on their entire life, until they inevitably either end-up in a sanctuary or worse, discarded or in the case of this series, animals being killed because they didn't have space for them."

Also, cats used for entertainment, like in Joe Exotic's magic shows or for shows at malls, are carted around in cramped cages and forced into many unfamiliar environments. They face heightened stress, which can lead to health issues.

Breading captive tigers is not a conservation tactic.

In Tiger King, Tim Stark, the owner of roadside zoo Wildlife in Need, argued that breeding captive tigers in the United States was what was needed to get them off the endangered list. His point is not challenged at all within the series, although it is grossly misleading.

The genetic backgrounds of these captive tigers is rife with inbreeding and not one of the captive tigers in these 'zoos' could suitably be released into the wild. Breeding tigers in captivity serves no conservation purpose.

What happens to older tigers?

As discussed during Tiger King, cubs are the money makers for most entertainment venues like roadside zoos. Unfortunately, people will pay a fair amount of money to play with and take photos with tiger cubs - but what happens when the cubs grow up?

It doesn't make economic sense for these venues to keep (hungry, expensive) adult cats if they cannot make money off them but offloading big cats without resorting to harm would be difficult.

"What happens to older tigers at venues is often questioned, but never satisfactorily answered," Pearson told Mamamia. "And unfortunately this was the case in Tiger King, despite rumours of gas chambers and midnight shootings."

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Joe Exotic himself was found guilty of 17 wildlife charges, including killing five tigers.

Are places like Carole Baskin's 'retirement village' rescue centre the best-case scenario for captive animals?

Animals bred into captivity cannot be released into the wild, so a 'sanctuary' environment is best for them.

World Animal Protection recommends an observation-only environment, where there is no direct interaction with visitors, such as petting or feeding experiences. All interactions with humans should be in the animal's best interest and allow them to express their natural behaviours.

Baskin's Big Cat Rescue does not allow direct experiences with the tigers, and is therefore able to give them a life away from cruelty, Pearson said. It is also accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Morway said not highlighting the difference between Baskin and Exotic's facility is one of the docuseries' biggest failings.

How can we help?

Avoid animal tourism.

Fortunately, it is illegal for Australians to import exotic pets from other countries but petting and other hands-on activities with tigers are still offered in Australia. Pearson said we should avoid any experiences that offer hands-on experiences with wild animals.

"Our golden rule for all animal experiences, including those in popular Australian tourist destinations like Bali and Thailand, is that if you can ride, touch, feed or take a selfie with a wild animal, or see it perform tricks, you can be sure cruelty has been involved at some point," he said.

Education.

Of course, Joe Exotic's zoo and similar facilities do not educate visitors on animal conservation efforts or provide education on what is best for the species - and that is to end human ownership and protect wild populations and their natural habitats.

Sanctuaries and rescues do this. Their end-game is to put themselves out of business by putting an end to wild animals in captivity.

Tiger King showed hundreds of people happily posing and playing with tiger cubs and other animals, and the benefit of the doubt says most of those people did not realise the underlying cruelty behind the cute, photogenic experiences they were getting.

World Animal Protection research found 40 per cent of people who had taken a tiger selfie did so because they love animals, Pearson said.

People love petting and playing with animals. It's novel, and in the case of tigers and big cats, it can be thrilling. But as enjoyable as it could be, it's not a fair practice.

This is why education of practices like those in Tiger King is so important.

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