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How Your Excitement About Tiger King Can Save Wildlife

The hit reality show garnered millions of viewers looking to witness drama with big cats, but the show has also raised important questions about animals in captivity. Here's how you can help.

Written by
Laura Tomes

Reports suggest there are twice as many tigers being held in captivity in the United States as there are remaining in the wild. Tiger King, the recent runaway hit from Netflix, has enthralled audiences around the world with sensationalism and raw storytelling, reaching over 30 million viewers just 10 days after it was released. Unfortunately, while the documentary did a great job at showcasing the human effect behind operating an illegal zoo operation, it didn't do its' animal stars justice. The filmmakers didn't go into detail as to what was actually happening to the big cats, plus viewers weren't left with any tips on how to prevent cruelty from happening to wildlife in the future.

How I Experienced Tiger King in Real Life

On Saturday, August 22nd, 2015, I told my 16-year-old daughter not to make any plans for the day. As we got into the car, my daughter asked why she had to clear an entire Saturday. I told her we were going to “Wildlife in Need” (WIN)  to play with baby tigers, then headed out on the open road to make the two-hour trip from Evansville, Indiana to Charlestown, Indiana.

When we arrived, there was a long line of cars waiting to get in and parked. At the time, tickets had to be purchased online, although I don’t recall how much ticket prices were. It was my impression that the monies collected through ticket sales would directly impact the preservation of the tigers. According to WIN’s website, they are “…dedicated to the rehabilitation & release of indigenous wildlife & provision of safe harbor to an array of exotic & endangered species.” When you look at the content on their website, specifically the FAQ’s, the information provided paints a very pretty picture. In my mind I thought that the property I was visiting was a sanctuary for animals, not a roadside zoo.

Before the cubs were brought out, patrons were given a short, informational speech and a breakdown of the rules. The room was packed. Everyone had to remain seated. The only individuals allowed to stand upright and roam the room were the members of the WIN staff. Cubs were free to roam the room, which I believe was a poll barn. Patrons were not to pick up or restrain the animals. Staff members walked around with whips and gave tiger cubs a swat if they got too rough or tried to bite. I couldn't help but thinking that, behind the scenes, everything about this experience was not as it was advertised on the website. I began to question the ethics behind what I had just witnessed.

In the news

In early April 2020, a USDA administrative Judge upheld a previously issued ruling that the facility and its owner had violated the Animal Welfare Act more than 120 times over a four-year period, and that “the gravity of such violations was great.” Claims against the facility and the owner included inadequate care for animals that were sick and dying. WIN and owner, Tim Stark, were assessed $340,000 in penalties and their license was permanently revoked.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued a press release the following day stating: “No one who has encouraged patrons to it baby tiger cubs, swung and tossed monkeys by their tails and hips during public encounters, and bludgeoned a leopard to death with a baseball bat should have an Animal Welfare Act exhibitor’s license, and that means Tim Stark. As Tiger King revealed the sordid underbelly of captive animal exhibits, PETA is calling for the animals in Stark’s custody to be transferred to reputable facilities – and urging everyone to stay away from roadside zoos.”

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was signed into law into 1966 and is the only federal law in place that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. The AWA includes requirements for licensing and regulations/standards, annual reporting requirements, requirements regarding attending veterinarians and providing adequate veterinary care, recordkeeping in regards to the time and method of identification of animals, and recordkeeping as it pertains to: operators of auctions/brokers, health certification and identification, and includes a record retention policy.

Effects of Cub Petting & Why We Should Care

Tiger King alluded to the fact that once tiger cubs grow too large for cub petting (which is approximately 12 weeks of age), they are euthanized or killed. According to big cat owner, Doc Antle, tiger cubs are not euthanized once they outgrow the desired age for cub petting, because it illegal and immoral. Antle states that tigers born at his facility grow up there and go on to live long lives. 

According to Brittany Peet with PETA, “A few minutes of holding that cub sentences them to a lifetime of cruelty from the moment they are taken from their mother until the moment they die” and “…does way more harm than good.” According to Big Cat Rescue, ran by Carole Baskin, “…cubs are physically punished to diminish their natural behaviors…and their sleep is repeatedly interrupted for petting and photo ops, which lowers their fragile immune system.” Others believe tiger cubs used for cub petting will live their lives being physically abused, in small shelters, being crossbred, and can become very dangerous as they become older. 

After the release of Tiger King, the USDA began conducting inspections, launching an investigation of the sale and transport of endangered species. That file was sent to the Department of Justice. It appears that the USDA knew for years about the allegations of abuse and inadequate care of animals in these roadside zoos, but there was never an appetite to take it to a higher level until Tiger King came out.

Not only did I find Tiger King entertaining, I found it to be very informative. I realized in April of 2020 that my actions in August 2015 contributed to the problem, and in no way, helped the preservation of tigers. If I had any idea that tiger cubs were being separated from their mothers immediately after birth, or that animals were being beaten, or that the cubs could be neglected or killed after they could no longer be used for cub petting, I wouldn’t have gone. I think as people when we know better, we do better.


How You Can Stop Abuse of Big Cats

Vote with your dollars and do your research

Don't patronize places or experiences that feature up close interactions with big cats. If you want to see animals in real life, make sure to visit rescues that have rehomed animals from captivity. Ask the business to ensure they're not featuring creatures that were caught in the wild.

Urge Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act

In February 2019, U.S. lawmakers introduced the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which makes it illegal to own big cats unless you're licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture, plus it restricts how the public can interact with the animals. Unfortunately, the bill is not law – yet. Write your representative in Congress to let them know you're counting on them to pass this law to create change on a larger scale.

Sign this celebrity-backed petition saying that you care

Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix and dozens of other celebrities have partnered with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to create a petition targeted towards Congress. Take a few seconds to sign it and show change in numbers!

Donate to organizations that advocate for animal welfare around the world

Organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and more spend their days tirelessly advocating for the eradication of animal cruelty around the world. Consider becoming a patron of your favorite organization to help them create change.