Killed her husband, whacked him.
Can’t convince me that it didn’t happen.
Fed him to tigers, they snackin’.
From viral TikTok dances to Instagram memes, Carole Baskin’s popularity shot through the roof with the release of Netflix’s 2020 documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
But really, what’s happening?
The story goes a little like this. Carole Baskin is the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa-based non-profit established in 1992. She also hosts the Cat Chat Show where she interviews cat experts from around the world. The Insta-famous “Hey you, cool cats and kittens” phrase? Yep, that’s her.
Baskin is infamous for allegations that she murdered her former husband, voiced most prominently by Joe Exotic, or Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage. Exotic animal breeder turned zoo operator turned politician turned convicted felon, Joe dedicated his life to his hatred for Carole Baskin. The owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma—or G.W. Zoo—Joe was under the radar for drug abuse and animal abuse, and is now serving a 22-year sentence on two counts of murder for hire. And the person he wanted to murder? You guessed it, Carole Baskin.
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But you can get into all of that and more about the crazy lives of Joe and Carole while bingeing Tiger King. What we’re here to talk about is a little less dramatic, but a whole lot worse. And that’s the exotic animal pet trade in the US, specifically, tigers.
According to the WWF, approximately 3,900 tigers roam the wild today. Endemic to Asia, tiger populations have either stabilised, or are on a steady rise in countries like India, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Russia. But in the majority of Southeast Asia, their numbers are in a steady decline. Solitary animals, these endangered tigers roam across large swathes of forest, depending on the availability of prey.
Going back to Joe Exotic, an article in the Washington Post states that back in July 2019, Joe owned as many as 200 tigers in his menagerie. And according to a BBC report from 2018, there are an estimated 7,000 tigers living in the US in privately owned zoos and estates. That’s nearly double the number of tigers in the wild.
So, what’s the problem with this?
A lot of these privately-owned big cats are not registered and could well be living in people’s backyards. And these aren’t wild-caught. The majority of the US’ pet tigers are captively bred in conditions that aren’t centrally governed. States come up with their own regulations, which are—at best—hard to enforce. In Texas, you could buy a tiger online.
Roadside zoos, like Joe’s, aren’t accredited by the US Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or counted in surveys. This, as the documentary pointed out, leads to an abundance of animal abuse and cruelty. You can see the cats, who in the wild roam acres of forest alone, are kept in large groups, in small enclosures. They have pay-to-play arrangements with tiger cubs where visitors can pay money to get a selfie with an adorable baby tiger. This counts for a large amount of revenue for these zoos. According to the BBC report, these tigers are forcefully kept on the bottle to keep them smaller—and malnourished—for longer. They’re also easier to handle this way. This cub-petting is legal, by the way, as long as the cubs are between four and 12 weeks of age, according to the US Agriculture Department.
But what happens when these cubs age out of their pay-to-play programmes? The best-case-scenario here would be a sanctuary steps in and takes the cats in to spend the rest of their lives with some dignity. But more often than not, these tigers are either sold, used for breeding, or euthanised. The tiger, among numerous other species, has been commodified for our pleasure. For better reference, if this were happening to people, it would fall under trafficking, sex trade, slavery, and torture, all in one.
This, however, does not mean that people living alongside these seemingly domesticated beasts are out of harm’s way. Whether a pet or not, a tiger is still a tiger, and will do far more damage than your average feral cat. While captivity conditions lead to an abundance of health issues for these privately-owned cats, they can often be deadly if let go off or if they escape. According to a report by the Humane Society, “Since 1990, more than 300 dangerous incidents involving big cats have occurred in 44 states. Four children lost their lives and dozens of others lost limbs or suffered other often traumatic injuries. Sixteen adults have been killed, and scores have been mauled. Many captive tigers are kept in inhumane conditions, pose a threat to the community, create a burden for law enforcement agencies and sanctuaries, and jeopardize conservation efforts.”
While Carole and Joe ricocheted between playing exploiter and conservator, the victims can be seen lining the graves behind these roadside zoos and estates. In June 2019, Texas Monthly reported: “Prosecutors showed photos of tiger carcasses that federal agents dug up in the back of the zoo. One Fish and Wildlife Service agent testified that they were stuffed in their graves like 'hot dogs in a pack'.”