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Community members say ‘Tiger King’ ignites controversy of big cat ownership and ethics

A graphic of Joe Exotic and a tiger.

During quarantine and social distancing, BYU–Hawaii students and professors talk about the Netflix sensation, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” and how its deeper truths of animal abuse and human character need to be discussed.

Mason Allred, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters, said this show has likely become so popular due to people social distancing and spending more time searching for new media to watch. He said watching “Tiger King” was a great insight into how other people live and the basis of human nature.

“I think the scariest element of the series is the role of the abuse of power and animals to get humans to conform to what are essentially cults. Why do these multiple husbands of Joe Exotic, concubines of Doc Antle and numerous workers consent to such self-destructive behavior?

“It’s often a scary mix of drugs, guns, cat ownership and charisma. This should give us pause. Propping up those who are charismatic – or here outlandish, brash, and rude – because it makes for excitement, news and stories is incredibly problematic … and incredibly American.”

Similarly, Mia Boice, a senior from Georgia studying psychology, said the show was so strange to her because it showcased different groups of people she had no idea existed in the world.

“It's just crazy to think about this whole group of people in the world who are having these tigers, and we don't even know about all the things they do, which is kind of crazy.... It's this weird underground culture that no one really talks about.”

Allred also said the vivid portrayal of Joe Exotic and his counterparts shows the different drives of humanity and the more sinister motives of some people in society. He said this aspect of the show is both fascinating and terrifying to watch as a fellow member of society.

“The more powerful and difficult move might be recognizing the human nature in these characters and the role of celebrity, power, charisma and sexuality (the recurring connotation of big cats) in their ascension and demise. It’s even hard to tell once the documentary series has blown up and is turned into a staged series, who is really being used here … Who ultimately ‘profits’ from the genius storytelling of these stunning and heartbreaking events?”

Looking deeper

After the release of “Tiger King” and in light of the various reactions all over the internet, Kendra Nelson, a senior from Arizona studying marine biology, said she saw memes and posts online bashing Big Cat Rescue (BCR), the organization ran by Carole Baskin in the docuseries, and she felt she needed to speak up about them.

From her love of animals, Nelson said she made a post on Facebook to help people better understand the purpose of Big Cat Rescue and the nature of non-governmental organizations.

In the post, she wrote, “Big Cat Rescue has done a lot of work in animal welfare for lions and tigers … BCR is a non-profit. It is a highly accredited facility and has done good ... BCR uses the best acceptable practices in big cat captivity. They do not breed. They do not allow human interaction.”

Nelson said she is not necessarily a fan of Carole Baskin, but she feels Baskin has been discounted based on the allegations from Joe Exotic both online and in the docuseries. She said she hoped this post on Facebook would help clear up confusion about Baskin’s sanctuary.

“While her facility did not look better than Joe’s and Doc’s, there are some key differences. Neither Joe or Doc’s facilities have any recognized accreditation. They do not work with NGOs or conservation efforts yet claim to help conservation. This is why it is so important to do research before you go somewhere that has captive animals.”

Boice said this was also an issue on her mind while watching the show. “I think of just how many people are also supporting these places that have tigers and other exotic animals, and they're not being taken care of properly, and people are going there and supporting it.”

Furthermore, Nelson explained the big cats in captivity cannot be released back into the wild because they have grown dependent on the different practices of Joe Exotic and other zoos.

“Captive bred and raised lions/tigers cannot be released into the wild, especially after being handled too much and so intensely. They need to be in captivity or put down. Those are the options … Also, a lot of these cats are inbred. Hello white tigers. This means many have genetic issues.”

While he said these are legitimate concerns, Allred said he thinks a show like this will inspire people to become active in the world of big cat protection.

“I think the show is repulsive, hard to watch at times and absolutely engrossing at other times. But I think it's important. After the show, a few viewers will likely want to help better protect big cats. More will want to revel in the insanity that is the virility and power struggle around big cat ownership and exploitation.”

The show sheds light on how the United States has become No. 1 for big cat ownership across the globe. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are only between 3,200 and 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild globally. Meanwhile, in the United States, there are an estimated 5,000 tigers in captivity.

Regardless of the deeper truths found in “Tiger King,” Allred also said this show is a great example of storytelling with a purpose. He said the content matter and concerns discussed all add into a very cohesive and intriguing docuseries.

“No matter what anyone feels about the show, it is remarkable in its storytelling acumen. Each episode drops new bombshells, by surprising the audience with additional lurid details. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse … it does. In an age when we are so inundated with images, conventions and stayed genre clichés, ‘Tiger King’ feels disgustingly fresh and topical.”