Tiger King couldn’t have been timed better.
On March 20, as the entire world was abruptly forced into isolation, we bonded and raised each other’s spirits with a gossip-filled, fantastical exotic animal saga called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. Netflix couldn’t have picked a better quarantine binge if Ted Sarandos himself knew Covid-19 was coming.
The effect was immediate. A TikTok craze, an SNL sketch, and a hastily prepared reunion special later, Tiger King had cemented itself as one of the pillars of the year of quarantine, and perhaps even the age of streaming itself.
Six months later, a lot has changed, even if many of us are still quarantined in our own homes. Joe Exotic is still in prison, despite asking the President for an official pardon. Carole Baskin is strutting her stuff on Dancing With the Stars, even while her former husband’s family runs attack ads questioning his disappearance. Hollywood at large is scrounging to adapt Tiger King into not just one but three different scripted shows.
Part of Tiger King’s appeal was the human interest of the story. Big characters, big ambitions, and lots of drama. However, what about the core of the conflict: the animals?
Animals at Exotic’s G.W. Zoo were kept isolated, and Tiger King showed them being fed roadkill and expired meat. After the zoo changed hands to Jeff Lowe in February 2016, the USDA made an unannounced inspection, resulting in a sickening report describing unrefrigerated food storage, tigers in escapable enclosures, and wolves unable to even stand up.
Due to the appalling care Lowe provided these animals, the USDA suspended his exhibitor’s license, meaning he will no longer be able to operate the G.W. Zoo. However, that’s unlikely to bring an end to the abuse of these animals, Bobbi Brink, founder and director of the Lions Tigers & Bears Sanctuary in San Diego, tells Inverse.
“Right now, he’s considered a private owner, so there’s really no oversight.” Brink says.
Lowe was planning a move to a new zoo facility, but after the suspension, he voluntarily gave up his license and announced plans for his second facility, a filming location for any upcoming Tiger King fictionalizations.
“There's obviously not enough cages on that property right now for all the animals,” Brink says. “Whether he's planning on giving them to other roadside zoos or just abandoning them when he leaves, it's really hard to say what he's going to do. He's really into filming whatever he's filming right now and using every bit of the Tiger King name up that he can.”
Among those fictionalizations are an as-yet-untitled Amazon series starring Nicolas Cage as Joe Exotic and an NBC series simply entitled Joe Exotic starring SNL breakout Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin. Brink says Lowe shouldn’t be able to use his private zoo as a filming location, as exhibiting animals, if only to be filmed as part of a production, still requires a license.
It’s still up in the air when filming on these projects will begin, as Covid-19 has taken its toll not only on the entertainment industry, but the animal sanctuary industry as well. Tigers can catch Covid just like humans, so there’s a risk not only to the visitors, but to the endangered animals as well.
Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari only closed after the state government mandated it, but it is now open and offering tours with no mask mandate whatsoever. Other zoos and animal sanctuaries have had to get a bit more creative. Lions, Tigers, and Bears even pivoted their zoo experience to Zoom meeting drop-ins while they planned a safe reopening.
This is just one of the differences evident when comparing zoos to sanctuaries, but the main difference comes down to breeding.
“A true sanctuary will never buy, breed, sell or trade animals, period,” Brink says, “and accredited zoos breed following an SSP plan.” (An SSP plan, or species survival program plan, breeds endangered animals in a way that keeps the species healthy and genetically diverse.)
If you watched Tiger King and you’re looking for ways to stop animal abuse, there are some easy ways you can still have all the fun of a zoo without supporting malpractice.
“I always tell people if you're going to support animals, support an accredited sanctuary and know your animal,” Brink says, “know where they came from, know their story and most importantly, know when they die, why they died.”
This last piece of advice is in reference to probably the most shocking reveal in the reports of Lowe’s management of the G.W. Zoo: a partially burned tiger carcass on a burn pile of garbage. There was no attempt to assess what went wrong with the animal, its body was simply discarded. It’s this kind of vet care that sets sanctuaries apart.
Another difference is that an SSP breeding plan completely forbids the breeding of the hybrids and variants on display at the G.W. Zoo and Myrtle Beach Safari, as it’s in place to replicate the species as it would exist in the wild. Brink explains that while white tigers may look exotic, the only way to breed one is to inbreed, sometimes father to daughter, sometimes father to granddaughter, which can cause major medical problems.
Even though Tiger King was a huge sensation, it didn’t exactly spark a massive movement against animal abuse. Not yet, anyway. If Lowe does indeed turn his new “private” zoo into a film location, that's potentially the pockets of the people perpetuating the issue. Still, it's not too late to push back against roadside and unaccredited zoos, even if they provide some much-needed entertainment on Netflix.
Tiger King is now streaming on Netflix.