The entire world used Netflix’s Tiger King to get through the first few weeks of corona-induced self-isolation. The show had people discussing everything from the possible murder of Caron Baskin’s husband to the apparent sex cult run by Doc Antle. However, the drama of the larger-than-life characters overshadowed the show’s most important contribution – a behind the scenes look into private tiger ownership in the US.
Captive tiger numbers increase globally every year, and the US is in the forefront with an estimated 5000 tigers held in captivity. Only around 6% of these tigers are housed in accredited zoos and facilities, meaning that the large majority are held in privately owned facilities with little or no regulation . Captivity in itself isn’t the problem, in fact breeding programs and coordinated captive conservation efforts are important in maintaining healthy and genetically diverse populations of the different tiger sub-species. The problem is rather the lack of control, regulation and standards in relation to captive tigers’ husbandry, often resulting in poor welfare in a number of different ways.
While Tiger King didn’t explicitly focus on these aspects of tiger husbandry, the show does give a peek at some of the issues that are prevalent in the US captive tiger industry.
The tiger trade
First of all, where do all these captive tigers come from? Obviously, a lot of tiger facilities breed their tigers, and for many facilities this is where they get a majority of their revenue. Tiger cubs are cheap and easy to produce if you have females on a rotating breeding program . Many breeders sell their cubs at a very young age, meaning that the cost of feeding and caring for the cubs falls to the new owner. Now, depending on which state you live in and whether you qualify for exceptions, the sale of live tigers may be illegal in the US, especially if the animals are crossing state borders. This does not stop people selling and trading tigers in large numbers however, and many privately-owned tigers are never registered with the state at all. Not registering tiger ownership also means less likelihood of being faced with controls of any state regulations (if tiger ownership is legal at all in the specific state), meaning that owners are free to do as they please in terms of number of animals, breeding frequency and size and standard of housing.
The lack of regulation in trade means that tigers end up in a wide variety of welfare situations, and that it might be coincidence whether they are ever found and evaluated by state officials. It seems that even facilities that advertise themselves as welfare-friendly are willing to buy and sell tigers from/to facilities with proven welfare issues, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of exploitation.
Another problem with the unregulated tiger trade such as it is happening in the US, is that there is no proper genetic mapping of the breeding. This results in inbreeding with subsequent health issues, as well as the production of hybrids such as ligers and popular sub-categories of tigers such as golden tigers and white tigers. Ligers are a cross between tigers and lions, and are not found in the wild, and have no conservational value whatsoever . The only reason for breeding these animals is for entertainment purposes, and as they often grow even larger than tigers or lions, they are seen as great attractions. When it comes to sub-categories of tigers, such as the golden and white tigers, there is a misconception among many in the public that these are separate sub-species3. This is not the case, and the production of these colour variants often require strict inbreeding which in turn can result in massive health concerns. While many people find these animals beautiful, the welfare issues concerning their production should be enough to stop this type of breeding entirely.
While Tiger King to a large degree focuses on the human characters of the show, and the relationships between them, the interactions between humans and animals are also given a fair amount of screen time, even if it often is incidental. What the show fails to address is the problematic situations that can and do arise as a result of these types of interactions. A prime example is when Joe Exotic himself wanders around an enclosure full of big cats, seemingly unaware and uncaring of where in the enclosure the cats are, or what they are doing.
Anyone who has experience working with predators know that this is a bad idea in itself – even if you have grown up with large predators as pets or you have raised them from cubs as a zoo keeper or similar, there is always a chance that they will one day harm you. With big cats who are prone to stalking behaviour, it makes it truly baffling how an experienced keeper can wander around an enclosure without an eye on the animals. In the specific situation showed on the show, Joe Exotic is indeed stalked by one of his ligers, and he even lets the cat in question stalk around his legs without any worry whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, what happens is that the cat eventually gets more interested than Joe Exotic would like and tries to pull him down. While Joe Exotic tries to beat the cat away with a crutch, he is unsuccessful and is forced to fire his gun to get the cat to retreat. A situation like this should never occur and is hard to justify. Joe Exotic had no justifiable reason to be in the enclosure, other than to show off the fact that he is able to. The result is violence towards one animal in particular and frightening all the animals in the enclosure (and probably also in surrounding cages and enclosures) with the gunshot. While you can advocate that some human-tiger interaction may be acceptable, this type of blatant disregard for safety has no place in any animal husbandry. If a facility runs with some interactions between keepers and tigers, there should be stringent safety measures in place, and a zero-tolerance policy for violence and abuse.
Another example of dubious human-tiger interactions in Tiger King comes with the handling of (very young) tiger cubs. Not only do we see tiger cubs being taken from their mother almost as soon as they are born, they are also placed directly into the arms of waiting tourists, only to be used as props for photos. While the handling of young cubs may not be harmful in itself, the early separation from the mother causes stress to both mother and cubs [4,5]. The use of the cubs as photo props also introduces them to a range of potentially lethal contaminants, such as bacteria and viruses spread by unknowing visitors. As mentioned above, many of these cubs are also sold off at a very early age, and it is hard to know for certain where they end up.
While interactions between tigers and humans pose huge safety issues, it is just as important to consider how these interactions affect the welfare of the animals. Frequent human interactions are known to be stressors for many captive animals . And, while cubs and adult tigers may look at ease and relatively calm when being handled in front of visitors, there is no way of knowing what kind of training has gone into preparing them for these situations negatively impacting their welfare . Violence is sadly not uncommon.
Tigers are large obligate carnivores, and as such require a strict diet of quality meat, with specific additional supplements if enough high-quality meat cannot be provided . Such a diet is expensive and can be difficult to handle safely as raw meat spoils quickly. In Tiger King we see how Joe Exotic receives leftover meat from local businesses, and how the quality and quantity of meat varies from delivery to delivery. This is not a safe or responsible way of feeding animals. The nutritional needs of these tigers will not change depending on how much meat is delivered, and feeding them less is not an acceptable solution, completely independent of financial issues the owner may be facing.
When keeping tigers in captivity there should be a nutritional plan in place that takes into account each tiger’s individual needs. Age, sex and size all play a part in what the tiger’s diet should look like, and any additional health issues may alter their needs further. This highlights the importance of competency in tiger husbandry, as feeding large obligate carnivores is not quite as simple as keeping a pet cat or dog happy in your own home.
Enrichment and cage/enclosure standards
Keeping captive tigers is challenging in many different ways; providing appropriate species-specific environments are among the greatest challenges. Tigers naturally cover large areas in their search for food and water, and these types of ranges are practically impossible to recreate in captivity  making them prone to problem behaviours when kept in poor captive environments . However, such enormous areas are not necessary to provide a natural, stimulating and welfare-friendly captive environment. A tiger enclosure should be large enough for the tiger(s) to have different options in terms of behaviour, meaning it should be large enough for exploration, offer different substrates as well as well-planned enrichment items [8,9,11]. In practice this means that enclosures should include elements from natural tiger habitats, such as ponds  trees and caves. Such varied enclosures give the tiger the option of hiding, walking out in the open, sleeping, cooling down and engaging in other natural behaviours. The key being that the tiger has a choice.
In addition, specific enrichment additions should be made where possible and put emphasis on hunting or feeding behaviours . This can include scent enrichment , hiding food , toys and options for scratching and sharpening claws. Safety dictates that tigers often have to be closed inside smaller areas during the night, and whether you refer to them as cages or night rooms they effectively mean the same thing. A nightroom or cage should also provide the tiger with different substrates, such as soft sawdust and harsh sand as an example, and encourage different behaviour by including platforms, climbing poles or similar.
While Tiger King didn’t go into detail around the state of cages and enclosures at Joe Exotic’s compound or any of the other facilities, what was shown was of a very different standard from what we would encourage. Not only were tigers shown to be kept in large groups in small enclosures and cages, there was also a lack of any attempt at enrichment. Keeping tigers in such conditions fosters health problems, raises the risk of aggressive behaviour between animals and offers low welfare standards as tigers have very little chance of carrying out natural behaviours. These are issues that are difficult to overcome without dramatically decreasing the number of animals kept in each facility, or without being willing to run much larger sums of money into the projects.
While Tiger King didn’t evaluate the welfare of captive tigers in the US, it did offer a first insight into the real issues surrounding tiger husbandry. A new documentary, Surviving Joe Exotic, is scheduled to premiere on Animal Planet on July 25 and promises a closer look into the fates of the animals of G.W. Zoo. We’re hoping this documentary will be as popular and wide-reaching as its precursor and that it will be able to finally shine a much-needed light on the plight of captive tigers in the US.
TL:DR – Tiger King provided us with much needed distraction during the first phase of the corona pandemic but failed to highlight the welfare issues surrounding the captive tiger ownership. A new documentary is set to look into these issues, and hopefully spotlight the less pristine corners of these tiger facilities.
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