Netflix Docuseries Tiger King and What You Really Need to Know About Captive Big Cats
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Ed Derby, President, PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society)
April 2020

"I can’t say it more clearly: When you pay to pet, hold or take a picture with a captive wild animal, you are supporting animal abuse."

Tiger King
Tiger King Netflix ad...

By now, most people have watched or heard of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King, which shines a light on roadside zoos and the captive wildlife trade – but there's far more to the story. The insidious business of using big cats for entertainment causes a lifetime of untold misery.

I can’t say it more clearly: When you pay to pet, hold or take a picture with a captive wild animal, you are supporting animal abuse. When you patronize a county fair that features a captive big cat or bear show or any other wild animal attraction, you are supporting animal abuse. When you go to a circus with wild animal acts, you are supporting animal abuse. When you pay to have captive wild animals at a birthday party or corporate event, you are supporting animal abuse. All these activities involve subjecting animals to close confinement, unnatural living conditions, stressful situations, and often, cruel training. They also sustain the unchecked breeding and sale of captive wildlife.

Don’t be fooled. Places that sell you the opportunity to hold a tiger cub, pet a sloth, or that use captive wildlife for entertainment are not helping to conserve animals in the wild and they most definitely are sending the wrong message about animals. These are not "educational" events. They are strictly entertainment experiences presented by the same individuals and enterprises that provide wild animals for fairs, parties, television talk shows, and film productions.

Getting up close and personal does not benefit the animals. At PAWS, we strive to ensure that our animals have the most natural, intrusion-free lives possible, therefore, we are not open to the public except for a limited number of educational events at ARK 2000. PAWS is a true sanctuary, meaning that we do not buy, sell, breed, or allow the public to come into contact with the animals. Our focus is on the individual for the sake of that animal only. They are not ambassadors for their species nor are they on display to send a message. If there is any message, it is that the situations these animals were rescued from, and the abuse and deprivations many of them suffered, should not be allowed to exist.

The rampant breeding of big cats causes incredible suffering. Here are some of the important points you should know:

  • Cub petting operations must always have cubs available, so they constantly breed their females – as often as three times a year, when in nature females would have at least two years between litters. This “speed breeding” physically depletes the mothers, and eventually cubs are born sickly or dead.
  • Cubs are ripped from their mothers shortly after birth, traumatizing both mother and cubs. The cubs are hand raised, depriving them of immune-boosting antibodies found in their mother’s milk and leaving them vulnerable to disease, including some that can be transmitted to adults and children who handle them.
  • Once they grow big enough to be used for photos ops, cubs are subjected to hours of rough handling, denied sleep, and may be slapped, dragged, and punched by handlers. (Watch the undercover investigation video of GW Exotic Park and Joe Exotic by the Humane Society of the United States.)
  • After about 8-12 weeks the cubs can no longer be used, as they are more dangerous for the public to handle. They may be sold to other roadside zoos or private individuals where conditions may be as bad or even worse, retained to breed more cubs, or, as Tiger King suggests, killed. A fortunate few find their way to accredited sanctuaries like PAWS.

Disreputable exhibitors don’t care about genetics or animal health. They recklessly breed animals, which results in physical abnormalities, neurological defects, and other lifelong health conditions. This is especially evident in “novelty” animals such as white tigers, who are highly inbred and have absolutely no conservation value, and lion-tiger crossbreeds like tigons and ligers.

Tiger Mungar

Mungar, our rescued 14-year-old tiger, was born with multiple physical problems that most likely resulted from inbreeding. His challenges are many: Mungar is blind in his left eye and has limited vision in his right. Malformed neck vertebrae pinch his spinal cord, causing urinary incontinence and making it difficult to coordinate his rear legs. He also has a deformed jaw so chewing large pieces of food is a challenge. He requires multiple medications and specialized care. Despite all this, Mungar is a content and playful tiger, and he is beloved by our caregiving staff.

Many people are asking how the mistreatment of captive big cats can be allowed in this country. Unfortunately, the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is outdated and very vague, enabling rundown zoos, cub petting schemes, and bear pits to legally operate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with enforcing the AWA, has increasingly treated exhibitors as clients rather than entities to be regulated and held accountable for their animals’ health and welfare.

The late Pat Derby and I long called on zoos to take a stand against circuses and the private ownership of exotic animals. I’d like to think that if we had all pulled together, we could have already ended the abuse you see in Tiger King. While I commend the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for supporting the Big Cat Public Safety Act, zoos can do more for captive wildlife. Unfortunately, many AZA accredited zoos offer some type of animal “encounter” – from camel rides and selfies with sloths, to petting hippos and rhinos, and presentations where the public is in close proximity to leashed wild cats such as cheetahs and servals – to bring in additional revenue. But to the public, an animal encounter is an animal encounter, blurring the line between AZA-accredited and roadside zoos.

This would be a good time for respectable zoos to draw a clearer distinction between themselves and facilities that exploit wild animals for profit. One way is to permanently ban up-close animal encounters (which a two-year zoo study found did not increase visitor engagement). The recent discovery of COVID-19 in a tiger at the Bronx Zoo makes this action all the more urgent in order to protect animal health and welfare. The AZA should also firmly distance itself from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which promotes public contact with and the private ownership of wild animals and accredits zoos that offer cub petting. Finally, zoos must stop breeding animals just to produce crowd-attracting babies, and end breeding programs for species that have no hope of reintroduction to the wild (zoos can support special breeding efforts and other conservation imperatives in range countries).

There is a staggering number of captive tigers and other wild cats in the U.S., with as many as 5,000 tigers (more than exist in the wild). When this data is extrapolated to include all big cat species, the number can potentially be far higher. Few options exist for placement of big cats who are victims of this breeding crisis. (AZA accredited zoos generally will not accept big cats due to the animals’ unknown genetic histories.) Inevitably, legitimate captive wildlife sanctuaries are on the receiving end of the problem. However, sanctuaries are often at capacity or unable to take on the financial obligation of caring for more animals.

Providing lifetime care for captive big cats and other wild animals is extremely expensive, especially as many of those animals arrive with health conditions that require specialized care and costly medications. PAWS continues to care for the remaining aging tigers from our 2004 rescue of 39 sick and starving cats from a facility that once offered tours to the public and photos with tiger cubs. The cost to date is estimated at more than $3.75 million for housing, food, staff, and veterinary care.

In short, we can’t rescue our way out of the big cat breeding crisis. We have to stop the problem at its source. To do that, we need your help. Here are some simple actions you can take:

  • Never take a selfie with or handle a wild animal of any age.
  • Steer clear of traveling shows that feature big cats, including circuses, magic acts, and big cat attractions at county fairs.
  • Support stronger laws at the local, state and federal level to end the private ownership of big cats and the use of wild animals in entertainment.
  • Take action to support the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would place responsible controls on big cat breeding and end inhumane cub petting attractions.

As always, thank you for supporting PAWS.

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