Why the focus needs to shift from ‘Tiger King’ to tiger conservation


Waldemar Brandt

A tiger and her cub.

The Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” released on March 20, captured the minds of viewers across America, but was it for the right reasons? The extravagant Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, attracted attention for his role in a murder-for-hire plot against fellow big cat owner Carole Baskin. However the series barely has touched on the real victims of this saga – the tigers.

Courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
The geographic range of tigers in their natural habitat

As college students are stuck at home completing coursework online, there has been more time for binge-watching shows.

This series came out at the perfect time for students who are bored and have a thirst for drama. The exploration and comparison of the G.W. Zoo and Big Cat Rescue in itself is captivating, and with each owner representing a unique story, this truly was the madness the producers promised. 

From Baskin’s husband’s suspicious disappearance, to Joe’s many relationships and the drama within them, “Tiger King” capitalized on the eccentric personalities of both characters to pinpoint viewers’ focus on the people and their various scandals. It failed, however, to dig into the fact that both Baskin and Exotic scandalously owned, bred and sold hundreds of tigers and other big cats. 

The series was created to focus on the plight of Exotic through this scandal, but it failed to use the platform to advocate for any type of justice or a better standard of care for the animals. While I found the show enticing, I couldn’t help thinking past the rivalry of zookeepers and to the welfare of these animals. What are animals that belong in the wild doing across the Pacific Ocean in Oklahoma or Florida? 

Only mentioned in a 10-second black and white graphic in the very last episode, the directors mentioned that “5,000-10,000 tigers live in captivity in the U.S. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild.” These captive tigers should not be bred to live in unnatural habitats, as they are meant to roam large swathes of jungle. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Big cat owner Joe Exotic’s mugshot

As the global climate continues to change, and the human population grows, it is becoming harder for these cats to avoid humans in territories large enough to sustain them with enough prey. According to a paper published in Nature Communications, wild tiger population degradation is caused by poaching and deforestation for palm oil production. If there is more effort put into preserving the natural home for these tigers, then feuds such as the ones between Exotic and Baskin would not have existed in the first place. They also wouldn’t have come about if it was illegal to own and breed tigers, especially as endangered species. 

Legislation regarding this has been brought to Congress in the form of the Big Cat Safety Act. This was discussed more in the documentary, but by Baskin, who viewers were guided to dislike from the start. According to their official website, this bill is meant to revise restrictions on the possession of numerous species of big cats. This would include the sale of cubs, which would make breeding tigers a null business. And, anyone who bred the cubs to profit on photos or play time would not be allowed to continue to breed for profit. 

Endangered species breeding should be allowed for conservation efforts, not turned into a for-profit business. With the popularity drawn from this explosive series, more people should look into the ethics of keeping wild animals as pets. And, with Exotic in jail, the fate of his tigers is unknown.