‘Tiger King’ and The Truth About Captive Tigers
Netflix takes viewers inside the world of the Tiger King.
Head of Content | Los Angeles, CA | Contactable via: jill@livekindly.com

Jill has spent more than a decade immersed in digital publishing and storytelling with a focus on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, ethics, health, and politics. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Medium, MTV, and the Village Voice.

Netflix’s “Tiger King” will be remembered for getting many of us through a few hours of what seems like eternal quarantine. It hits all the points that make for good television: dynamic characters and fascinating plotlines that include murder, mystery, and, of course, tigers. Lots and lots of tigers. But what it offers in daytime-television-worthy cliffhangers, it misses in addressing the issues with animals in captivity. And that may make its most lasting memory turn out to be an abject failure for animals.

Like most people, my experience with captive animals started out at the zoo. My family had an annual membership and it seems like we spent more time there than anywhere else wandering through the exhibits. I knew every twist and turn of the park’s paths by heart. I knew the animals’ names. I could predict when the smell from the elephant yard would kick in on the path. I knew when it was feeding time. I’d run to see the orangutan, the polar bears, the zebras, and giraffes as if they were old friends. Which, of course, they were.

‘Tiger King’ and The Truth About Captive Tigers
California’s Dolphin Protection Act would ban the captivity of whales and dolphins statewide.

The Mystique of Captive Animals

Chuckles, the famous Pittsburgh Zoo river dolphin, survived in captivity for more than 30 years. He’d throw balls out of his ground-level enclosure no bigger than a wading pool, and eagerly wait for children to throw them back in. He’d catch them on his long, slender nose and steady them as he moved around his bathtub home. His perpetual smile offered validation of my visits. Or so I thought.

It’s a thrill for any child to think that a mythical creature like a dolphin, or a tiger, has any interest in you. It’s as if they leaped right out of storybooks and landed into that cage or tank. It seemed as though they were all happy in their strange isolated world, and as happy to see me as I was to see them.

But this is the lie of animal captivity. 

After years of visiting the zoo as a child, my love for animals grew. I loved them so much, I stopped eating them in my teens. And by my early 20s, I found myself working in the Pittsburgh Zoo’s children’s area. The job was mostly cleaning up droppings and making sure children didn’t poke out animals’ eyes or pull too hard on their tails. But it got me closer to animals every day and that was more important than anything, or so I thought. The summer job earned me an internship as well. It felt like winning the lottery.

‘Tiger King’ and The Truth About Captive Tigers
Some animals can suffer from depression in zoos

The Truth About Zoos

Big cats and rhinos were my assignments. I’d be trailing a keeper on her feeding and cleaning rounds. Once a week we’d throw raw horse bones to all the big cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, snow leopards. We’d go in and clean their cages while they were out gnawing on the only food remotely close to what they’d eat in the wild.

The alpha male lion would mark the walls of his enclosure with the greasy black oil secreted through his mane. Every night he’d rub the walls and leave marks so thick it felt as if the night had been 100 years long. Every morning we’d scrub the walls clean. It seemed a lot like going into someone’s home every morning after they’ve left for work and removing all of their personal belongings. Each night that lion would return to a sterile home and he’d spend most of the night making it his own again.

My very first day as an intern would set the tone for the reality for animals in captivity. An older tiger who had given birth there in captivity years before now had cancer. The veterinarian tranquilized her so they could get a look at her stomach.

One of the world’s most beautiful creatures lay before me as a sea of green scrubs rolled her onto her back to examine her stomach for tumors. There were many. While she lay there tranquilized, a veterinarian gave her another injection, one she wouldn’t wake from. The disease was too advanced. There was no saving her. Some of the keepers cried. I reached out for a quick touch of her soft orange, white, and black striped fur before they moved her out of the exhibit. Her children watched from their cages.

‘Tiger King’ and The Truth About Captive Tigers
Elephants in captivity most often die from foot diseases.

Animal Diseases

Diseases like cancer, while all-too-common for humans (we are, after all, captive even when we’re not in quarantine), are extremely rare for animals in the wild. Scientists are even studying this in hopes that it could shed some light on prevention in humans. But captive “wild” animals have incredibly high rates of cancer and other diseases that in humans we often refer to as “diseases of affluence.”

These diseases, like obesity and heart disease, can be chalked up to poor and unnatural diets, mainly, and certainly a lack of physical activity. There are infectious disease risks in captivity, too. Just over the weekend, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus. She was infected by her keeper. A Malay tiger would never run that risk in the wild.

But confinement itself plays a larger role in these issues than you might think. Zoochosis—the stressed-out behavior captive animals display by pacing, rocking, and other repetitive behaviors—can lead to excess cortisol production aka the stress hormone. And stress is a precursor to diseases like cancer. 

Keepers were used to these deaths. It’s part of life in captivity. We’d hear of these “unnatural” deaths almost weekly: a sea lion, a snake, a bird, a rhino. 

“Zoos as institutions are deeply problematic,” Laurel Braitman, author of the book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, told Slate.  “It’s impossible to replicate even a slim fraction of the kind of life [animals] have in the wild.” 

Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ Exposes Plot to Kill An Animal Activist
‘Tiger King’ is now on Netflix.

Where ‘Tiger King’ Fails

“Tiger King” fails to portray tigers as majestic. The cats serve as little more than a backdrop to the twisted human dramas that prevail in the series, almost to a fault. I half-joked to a friend recently that the series could have been called “Tire King” instead because the animals don’t get nearly the exposure they deserve. Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin could have been haggling over the lowest price for Bridgestones, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Newborn cubs are little more than stuffed animals as they’re passed around by Joe Exotic and Doc Antle for selfies. The animals are far too muffled in the series, and that’s a really big problem.

Perhaps the directors thought by exposing the lack of regard Exotic and others actually have for the animals it would spark our own empathy. But too little time is dedicated to what it means to be a tiger—both in and out of captivity—for this to happen. They’re far too objectified by the characters who dominate the series to help the viewer find their way around the ethical dilemmas.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary “Blackfish” exposed marine animal captivity and the daily horrors behind the scenes at SeaWorld. It traces the life and murders committed by one of its star orcas, a male named Tilikum. The film was so shocking, so tragic, that ticket sales for SeaWorld have still not recovered nearly seven years later. Consumers were horrified, rightfully so. It was the nail in the coffin that will ultimately lead to the end of SeaWorld as we know it.

But the muted cats in “Tiger King” aren’t likely to have that same impact on zoos. I worry that, while the world is in lockdown, the series will actually put “get a selfie with tiger cubs” on the top of a lot of post-coronavirus bucket lists, driving attendance for a number of zoos and “sanctuaries” accredited or not, once we’re allowed out of our own cages.

‘Tiger King’ and The Truth About Captive Tigers
Wild animal populations are dwindling.

The Conservation Myth

Like SeaWorld has done for decades, zoos often tout themselves as ambassadors of conservation. “Tiger King” noted a startling stat: approximately 5,000-10,000 tigers in captivity just in the U.S. versus the mere 4,000 left in the wild. Zoos use those stats to their advantage, too. They expose and exploit animals born into zoos under the pretense of conservation platforms. These are animals who will never know life beyond isolation, save for the thousands of gawking human faces they see day after day. 

These are animals not born into captivity for conservation’s sake, but solely for profit. If the goal of captivity is to promote wildlife conservation, dwindling wild populations all across the globe prove that it has failed miserably. Wild animals have become even more sought out than ever before. Poaching is on the rise as communities are incentivized to profit from the exploitation of wild animals rather than from their preservation. Many wild populations have passed the point of no return. In our lifetimes, it’s entirely likely we’ll see the last wild tigers disappear forever.

Some zoos mislead customers by misusing the word “sanctuary.”

Can We End Captivity?

Still, things are changing. There are reasons to be hopeful. Wild animal circuses, once the most popular form of entertainment in the world, have mostly all shut down. I’m convinced that SeaWorld will end all captive animal performances in my lifetime. Hollywood has replaced live animals with CGI so realistic it’s impossible to tell the difference. Storylines, in general, are getting an ethical makeover, too. The 2019 live-action remake of “Dumbo” took a pivot toward the humane in a PETA-approved new ending. But we still have a long way to go (especially when it comes to our food choices). 

“Tiger King” succeeds in reminding us all that good television drama never gets old. But it fails in moving us forward, in exposing captivity for the lie it always is. Joe Exotic’s fascinating life overshadowed what should have been the only important plot point: we need more sanctuaries committed to rescuing and ending animal captivity.

Whether big cats, retired circus animals, or the billions of animals raised every year for food, sanctuaries are necessary. Yes, they are captivity, but it is as an escape from captivity which is wholly speciesist and unnecessary. Their advocacy and policy work help provide animals the best life possible. It may not be as interesting as (spoiler) whether or not Carole Baskin fed her husband to tigers or whether Joe Exotic really did try to have her killed. But they do provide us that critical reminder that animals aren’t here for our entertainment any more than we are for theirs. Because in the land of truly wild animals, every tiger is king.