Netflix’s Tiger King is one of the most-watched documentaries on this platform if not ever having amassed 34 million viewers in the US alone in its first 15 days. Although it has lost some hype in the last few weeks due to The Last Dance, it still spurred conversations among colleagues across the world. All of that spectacle should be refocused into not only ensuring the safety of tigers but also how we view animal and pet ownership and relations. The premise of this documentary is the breaches in etiquette in which we should treat, view, and care for animals and how that leads a man named Joe Exotic down a dark path. To a much lesser extent, these qualities and activities have led many people to make decisions that boost their status while thinking little of the animals they possess or interact with. The following are a few key takeaways we should all reflect upon in reevaluating how we view animals.
Reassessment of Pet Ownership Etiquette
Having a pet should be viewed similarly to expanding your family. There is another living being with feelings and a beating heart that you are now responsible for. By deciding to obtain a pet, the implicit understanding should be that the owner is thinking about their well being as constantly as they would any other immediate member of their family within their household. The relationship between a pet owner and a pet and that of a zookeeper and zoo animal is not the same, but the same principles exist. However you look at it, that animal becomes a part of your life. If you are not willing to devote your time and energy to this animal, you should not have it in the first place. This is why animals should not be given as gifts. Let the lyrics of “The 12 Days of Christmas” remain lyrics.
Animals are Not Status Symbols
In many sects of society, the quickest way to get attention is to obtain things that are considered rare or valuable. This has included animals, particularly those endemic to faraway lands. Joe Exotic’s flaunting of his big cats was not unlike Aladdin’s entrance as “Prince Ali” to Agrabah. Once an animal owner becomes aware of their increased status, the focus shifts from “look at the animal” to “look at me who owns this animal”. That was a shift that occurred in Joe Exotic’s mind very early on in his tenure as a zoo owner. The more people that came to his zoo, the more people that could see his animals. But more importantly for him, that meant more people were there to see him. In the rural landscape that is Wynnewood, Oklahoma, he saw the opportunity to become a superstar. To achieve that goal, he exploited the tigers he owned to remain relevant.
Certain Animals are Not Meant to be Pets
A non-exhaustive list of animals one could consider having as pets include dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, other rodents, fish, turtles, lizards, and birds. There may be a few other reasonable alternatives, but what do these animals have in common? They have been domesticated for tens if not hundreds of years, meaning resources to aid in my care for them are easily accessible (and through legal means as well). There would be no need to rely on trucks of expired Walmart meat to feed them, which is how Joe Exotic was able to maintain a concerningly large amount of big cats on his estate. Additionally, these are typically docile animals when treated with love and respect. There is no fear of major injury if something goes wrong and they choose to retaliate. That is not the case with tigers. The documentary showed the instance in which a tiger severs the arm of zookeeper Kelci “Saff” Saffery. Despite the skill and experience Saff possessed in this environment, that did not prevent this accident from happening. While this event was debated and politicized to suit many peoples’ agendas in this documentary, this much is certain: when unqualified people run a zoo, good people get hurt and the animals suffer too.
The Role of Zoos: Why Private Zoos Do Not Work
Zoos primarily exist for the research and preservation of animal species, as well as the opportunity to educate the general public. Zoos require vast amounts of funding, maintenance, resources, and experience to be run effectively, often requiring a staff of thousands of people. The concept of “private zoos” should immediately be critiqued. While every person has a right to find ways to create a sustainable income for themselves (within lawful reason), there are surely better ways to do this than opening a private zoo. Logistical and ethical concerns for starters, but also the practical concerns of the resources needed to maintain it. Even when a zoo attracts more people, that just means the demand will stretch out the supply if the supplier is not prepared. Throughout this series, Joe Exotic proves himself to be someone who is not only financially capable but mentally capable to have so much responsibility, and he would regularly challenge the authority of those he hired to handle those matters for him. Every business has its problems, and high-profile zoos are no exception (see Cincinnati). Nevertheless, there is a huge gulf in class between how those zoos are run vs how this one was.
What We Should Learn From Tiger King
These abuses of power happen when the priority is no longer about the animals. Just about all of the grudges, fights, and disagreements depicted in this series occurred either directly or indirectly because of animals no longer being the focus of their lives. The status, money, fame, and power achieved through their ownership consumed Joe Exotic as it has to other people.
The next time someone asks for a Netflix recommendation, feel free to recommend Tiger King. In doing so, encourage them to understand that we are responsible for being good stewards to all forms of life that we encounter and know of. This documentary is an example of what NOT to do as a pet or animal owner of any kind. Anyone who exploits animals for their gain and shows constant signs of disregard for their lives, including being known to euthanize them once they “outlive their usefulness” in their perspective is no better than a poacher.
If you wish to learn more about tigers and other endangered species, follow this link.
Non-Exhaustive List of NPOs for Endangered Species Worldwide:
Defenders of Wildlife (https://defenders.org)
Gorilla Doctors (https://www.gorilladoctors.org)
International Crane Foundation (https://www.savingcranes.org)
International Rhino Fund (https://rhinos.org)
International Union for Conservation of Nature (https://www.iucn.org)
Jane Goodall Institute (https://www.janegoodall.org)
Project AWARE (https://www.projectaware.org)