Rachael Dyal, Op Ed Editor
Tiger King, Netflix’s latest buzzworthy docu-series, may feature lions and tigers, but the only thing running through my mind after binge-watching the show is the rumour Carole Baskin allegedly fed her millionaire husband Don Lewis to one the felines in her sanctuary.
She denies she was involved in the 1997 disappearance of her second husband.
The story also is about her rival, a roadside Oklahoma zoo owner named Joe Schreibvogel (infamously known as Joe Exotic) and his many felines. He was sentenced in January to 22 years in jail for plotting the murder of Baskin and hiring an undercover FBI agent to kill a “Jane Doe,” and killing five tigers.
But If you were contemplating watching the show to learn more about the illegal trade of big cats in the U.S., then I suggest you try to find another series to binge.
For me, watching Tiger King was the equivalent of watching one of those horribly produced Sharknado movies the Discovery Channel airs during its Shark Week marathons in July.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the series. I binged all seven episodes in a day because I was thoroughly entertained. But that’s the problem.
I would have liked a documentary like Blackfish, where the dangers of animal captivity are clearly presented.
Instead, Tiger King dedicates most of its time to displaying Joe Exotic’s cringe-worthy music videos, his supposed affection for his 187 felines and his hatred for cats-rights advocate Baskin, his arch nemesis.
A report by the World Wildlife Fund estimates there are 5,000 tigers in captivity in the U.S. — a number that exceeds the total number of tigers living in the wild by about 1,800.
Debbie Metzler, an associate director of law enforcement at the PETA Foundation, said there could be as many as 10,000 captive tigers in people’s backyards in the U.S.
“Those are the numbers that are out there,” she said. “We have no way of verifying because there’s so few regulations out there. People who have big cats as pets don’t necessarily have to report that, so there’s so many in backyards and basements that we don’t know about.”
I can confidently say none of this information was presented in Tiger King.
Metzler said she also watched the documentary and was disappointed by the lack of focus on the real issue at hand: captive animals.
“We see a scene where they pull a tiger cub from their mother…minutes after birth and then they just shoot to the next scene,” Metzler said.
Metzler encourages viewers who have questions about this scene — and the series in general — to visit PETA’s website, which provides information about the mistreatment of illegally traded animals.
“The issue is there’s no nation-wide laws against owning big cats,” she said.
Metzler said U.S. states may have different rules, but usually the laws against private ownership of animals are exempt if people own a licence with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Indeed, the Animal Welfare Act requires anyone who breeds animals for commercial purposes and other reasons to be licenced with the USDA.
However, one of my — and Metzler’s — biggest concerns about Tiger King is how it glazes over the mistreatment of animals at roadside zoos.
“Animals are relegated to enclosures that are no bigger than our living room and that are sometimes completely barren and have no regiments. And they [the animals] just pace all day. They undergo a lot of psychological issues,” she said.
Metzler said operators at some of these facilities don’t even provide basic necessities for these animals, such as food, shelter or water.
“It’s appalling how much entrenched suffering is going on in these zoos,” she said.
If I had to guess what Tiger King is about without reading its synopsis and diving straight into it, I would have said “a feud between a guy who likes to cuddle with his big cats and a woman who allegedly fed her ex-husband to tigers.”
Based on what’s portrayed in the show, it would be easy to assume these animals are enjoying their interactions with the facility owners and don’t mind being held in captivity.
Most of the time, Joe is even playing with these animals like he’s trying to prove they’re jovial creatures.
Sure, you could argue Tiger King touches on the rumoured mistreatment of animals in Hollywood films, a plot point when the show features Doc Antle, a safari owner who was accused of throwing baby tigers into a gas chamber once they were no longer of entertainment value to him.
But, again, the documentary leaves out any evidence to validate these rumours, prioritizing sheer entertainment over any opportunity to educate its viewers.
To really drive my point home, I truly believe the saddest part of Tiger King is that it’s not until the end of the series’ last episode that its cast even mentions the well-being of the animals.