Privately-owned tiger cubs can be taken away from their mothers, overworked and then neglected when they grow too big to handle as part of the cub petting industry, says the CEO of HSUS

By Kelli Bender
April 02, 2020 06:23 PM
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Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who is also known as “Joe Exotic”
| Credit: JoeExoticTV/Youtube

Netflix’s Tiger King is the docus-series bringing everyone together during social distancing, with internet fans, celebrities, the series’ stars and more all reacting virtually to the seven-episode show about the feud between former private zoo director Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who goes by Joe Exotic, and Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.

Among the series’ shocking reveals, and there are many, is the peek the show gives viewers into exotic pet ownership in the United States. As Tiger King states in the first episode, it is estimated that there are more tigers privately owned in America than there are left in the wild.

Private zoos, like those run by Joe Exotic and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle in Tiger King, containing tigers and private tiger ownership are possible in America due to weak legislation.

“Though it is estimated that there are thousands of privately-owned big cats across the country, there are currently no federal laws prohibiting or regulating private possession of big cats in the United States. So depending on state and municipal law, it could be perfectly legal to own a big cat as a pet,” Alicia Prygoski, the legislative affairs manager at Animal Legal Defense Fund — a group dedicated to furthering animal welfare by “filing high-impact lawsuits to protect animals” — told PEOPLE about the current laws (or lack thereof) regarding exotic pet ownership in the United States.

She added: “It is also legal to own big cats for commercial purposes, such as displaying them to the public, as long as a facility obtains a license from the United States Department of Agriculture and adheres to the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Act sets bare minimum care standards for big cats and other animals at roadside zoos.”

According to Prygoski, having a license to display big cats for commercial purposes paired with a commercial-breeding license allows these tiger owners to legally breed tigers and use the offspring in “pay to play” cub-handling attractions.

As shown in Tiger King, “pay to play” cub handling is when zoo guests pay an additional fee for the chance to hold, pet and take photos with baby tigers. The allure of getting time with an adorable, exotic animal has led to the rise of the cub-petting industry, where “cubs are bred at a rapid rate in inhumane conditions” to fill the demand for cub petting attractions and to earn money quickly off an animal that is expensive to feed and care for.

Credit: Netflix

“The tiger cub petting industry is a global phenomenon where people pay to pet, play and take selfies with tiger cubs and sometimes even adult tigers and other captive wild cats. In addition to those mentioned and featured in the Netflix series, examples of similar facilities include the Tiger Temple in Thailand, which was linked to black-market trade in tiger parts and shut down in 2016.” Dr. John Goodrich, the chief scientist and tiger program director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, told PEOPLE. ” ‘Walking with lions’ operations, unfortunately, also abound in Africa, where people can pay to pet lion cubs and walk with young lions, which are frequently sold into the canned hunting industry when they grow large enough to become a danger to tourists.”

Some conservationists and animal activists are concerned with how cub petting is portrayed in Tiger King, and are worried that viewers will leave the series wanting to seek out a tiger cub interaction.

“Don’t do it!” Dr. Goodrich says of cub petting attractions. “If you really want to help cats, don’t cuddle them. Conserve them by supporting organizations like Panthera and by supporting legislation like the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund and initiatives that help cats in the wild and prohibit private ownership.”

Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, was more targeted with her reaction to the series, calling out the Netflix show for not delving into the grim realities that surround the cub petting industries.

Tiger King missed a clear opportunity to highlight the real tragedy here which is the careless handling and disposal of tiger cubs by the likes of Joe Exotic,” Amundson said in a statement to PEOPLE. “Fortunately, Congress is poised to pass the bipartisan Big Cat Public Safety Act to tamp down on private possession of big cats and cub petting. Let’s tell Congress it’s time to leave Tiger King’s showcase of animal cruelty on the editing room floor.”

The “tragedy” Amundson alludes to in her statement is what happens to privately-owned, captive tiger cubs, caught in the cub petting industry, at the beginning of their lives and as they get older.

“These facilities often masquerade and dupe the public as rescue or conservation operations. The rescue and conservation claim could not be further than the truth,” Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told PEOPLE. “In reality, infant cubs are snatched away from their mothers just minutes after they are born, to be handled as a prop to make money. Some of these roadside zoos and traveling zoos allow the public to handle these babies for playing, petting and feeding, for fees ranging from $50 to more than $500. It is a money-making machine with absolutely no regard for the animal’s health, safety and well-being whatsoever.”

Unfortunately, according to Block, the mistreatment of baby tigers in the cub petting industry doesn’t stop with removing the animals from their mothers’ care.

“These exhibitors subject baby animals to stress, neglect, and mistreatment. Regardless of whether they are sick, hungry or tired, the babies must accommodate a parade of people seeking a selfie with a tiger cub,” Block added. “To be used for public handling, cubs are pulled from their mothers shortly after birth, causing trauma to both the mother and the infant. The cubs are often deprived of adequate veterinary care and proper nutrition and their sleep cycles are disrupted. Physical abuse is sometimes used to control the cubs.”

Once the cubs get to be about 3 to 4 months old and become too big for guests to handle, Block says the big cats “end up living in poor conditions at roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries or are sold into the pet trade. Some exhibitors that used tiger, lion, and bear cubs for public handling have killed the animals when they were no longer useful for that purpose. And some die prematurely due to poor care.”

In order to prevent more tigers from being exploited and neglected, she believes, like Dr. Goodrish and Amundson, that people need to reject the cub petting industry, and its alluring offers of tiger cub selfies, and demand legislation that will protect big cats from becoming attractions in this country.

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“Please know that posing with a tiger cub may seem harmless, but it fuels a cruel industry that inflicts a great deal of suffering on these majestic big cats and does nothing to enhance conservation efforts or raise awareness on the plight of threatened and endangered species,” Block said. “Instead, we urge the public to consider supporting a big cat sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or a conservation organization that protects tigers in the wild. No one should ever handle a wild animal – no matter how small or young it may be. It perpetuates an unconscionable cycle.”

Along with Amundson, Block also suggested that animal lovers can immediately take action to protect tigers by contacting their federal legislators to urge them to cosponsor the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

“Also, if you see Tiger King or similar coverage of Joe Exotic being discussed on social media, please use the opportunity to educate the public about the plight of captive wildlife and remind people to always avoid roadside zoos and facilities that offer public contact with wild animals,” she added. “Most importantly, the public should simply not patronize a facility that is not AZA or GFAS accredited, and never interact with a wild animal.”