Lessons from Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’

APRIL 6 — There is not one person in Malaysia who isn’t affected by the movement control order (MCO). And thanks to the frontliners, many Malaysians (myself included) can afford to stay safe within the confines of their homes.

As boredom crept in, some of my friends were quick to suggest watching the docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix. 

A subscription and seven hours later, I was not only taken aback by how well the series was shot but also how it illustrated the problems related to keeping large cats in captivity.

Caution: Spoilers ahead.

The series began by laying bare an astonishing statistic. There are more captive tigers (approximately 5,000) in the United States of America (US) than wild tigers worldwide (approximately 3,000). 

And it was very clear why. People in the US love big cats and would pay top dollar to interact with them. This in fact sparked a whole industry which included zoo tours, cub-petting and mall shows. 

Non-human charisma = Influence

Conservationists term this attraction as non-human charisma, and in the case of big cats: the aesthetic component. 

Humans are attracted to the cubs because they are “cute” and “cuddly” while adults are “fierce” and “rare.”  

In fact, a study that ranked charismatic species showed that four out of the top 10 charismatic species are big cats (tiger, lion, panther and cheetah).

Non-human charisma is often exploited by zoo owners such as the main character — Joe Exotic — for profit. 

He had successfully associated these majestic animals to himself, allowing him to amass wealth, influence and popularity in the early days of his zoo. 

With that, he managed to build an empire and even run for governor (albeit unsuccessfully) of his state.

On the opposite end is Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue: a non-profit animal sanctuary. 

She ostensibly campaigned against Joe’s (mis)treatment of big cats and thrived off this non-human charisma as well — evidenced by her obsession with big cat print clothes and decorative items.

Not unlike Joe, she successfully rallied supporters (donors/volunteers) from all around the US in her rescue and advocacy efforts.

Here, we can observe that both characters are successful in tapping on the unique charm of big cats to exert influence upon other people. 

In Episode One, Joe lamented that the envy (of the people around) when he holds an exotic animal is what gives him great satisfaction. 

This brings me to my next point.

Normalisation of the abnormal

The series then depicts how captive big cats are normalised in the eyes of the public through TV appearances, celebrity endorsements and even public events.

The appearance of tiger cubs at talk shows like David Letterman and Jay Leno might improve ratings but it also encourages ownership. 

This is not helped by the purchase of cubs by popular athletes/celebrities like Shaquille O’ Neal. To be like your favourite athlete/celebrity, of course you would want one for yourself.

We must be cautious of this happening in Malaysia. We are already seeing several celebrities and social media influencers blatantly showing off pet gibbons or langurs on Instagram and Facebook. 

More likely than not the wildlife is purchased online without a valid permit.

A minor celebrity was recently fined RM27,000 for keeping a sunbear in her apartment, leading many to question how she obtained the cub in the first place. 

In any case, exotic pet ownership needs to be prevented to ensure the survival of our wildlife.

Questioning captivity

In the series, the zoo owners justified keeping wildlife in captivity for “conservation” purposes. That breeding wild cats is a form of ex-situ (outside of their natural habitat) conservation i.e. producing more captive individuals is good for the species.

When a zookeeper or foundation comes up with a statement like that, we should always be the discerning member of the public asking:

How much of their earnings contribute to maintaining wild populations?

What happens to the offspring of captive individuals?

Have they successfully released any individuals in the wild?

This is because each species play an irreplaceable role in the ecosystem. By unnecessarily removing individuals and breeding them without the intention to replace will cause an imbalance. 

The removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park being a prime example.

Final thoughts

In the series, the producers did a good job exploring the two antagonising characters. 

It was a shame that in the end, their personalities trumped the very animals they claimed to be championing. 

Millions were spent on lawsuits, breeding for cubs was rife and petty arguments resulted in unintended consequences. The time and resources could in fact have been used to save big cats in the wild.

I also liked that the show highlighted the need for strict legislation (Big Cat Public Safety Act) to prohibit possession of big cats by unlicensed individuals. Such a tool is necessary to reverse the astonishing statistic that the show began with.

What has brought the human race to its knees today (Covid-19 pandemic) arguably arose from unnecessary contact between humans and wildlife. 

This MCO, I hope my fellow viewers can reflect that social distancing between us and wild species is necessary, even key to our own survival.

While the absurdity of characters in the Tiger King docuseries will continue to fascinate many in the remaining days of MCO, the underlying conservation messages should last a lifetime.

Stay safe, stay at home everyone. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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