The hit Netflix documentary series Tiger King is a demonstration of human shortcomings. Liam Glen writes on how the ethical nightmare of the exotic pet trade reflects on flaws in modern society.
Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has been a top-ranking show since its release in mid-March, having attracted over 34 million viewers in the United States within its first ten days.
The documentary series centers on zoo owner Joe Maldonado-Passage – better known as Joe Exotic – and the events that led to his sentence of 22 years in prison for murder for hire. In this story are a plethora of bizarre twists and turns to keep viewers perpetually shocked, as the flamboyant personalities at the heart of the series reveal themselves to be power-hungry egomaniacs embroiled in petty disputes with deadly stakes.
Detractors have accused the show of focusing overmuch on drama and sensationalism rather than more serious aspects of the story. Indeed, while co-director Eric Goode began the project with the intent of exposing animal abuse, popular reaction to the series suggests that he missed his mark.
According to one poll, Tiger King viewers possess a net positive opinion of Joe Exotic, a man who can at best be described as a well-intentioned but hopelessly narcissistic individual and at worst as, in the words of his niece Chealsi Putman, “evil.”
Disturbingly, some have failed to even reflect on the most basic point of the series. Donald Trump Jr. has said that one of his main takeaways is that “none of us knew that you could have had a pet tiger for like two grand,” adding that “it’s kind of cool, we should do this.”
But if one looks at Tiger King with a critical eye, there are many lessons to be learned. The central figures’ actions throughout the series are outrageous, but they are ultimately rooted in needs, desires, and flaws that are present in all of us.
There are countless analyses about the human condition that can be drawn from the series. But the exotic animal trade – the topic that inspired the documentary series in the first place – is particularly disturbing. It is an important issue in its own right, but by interrogating the motivations behind it, we can also shine light on uncomfortable truths in our own lives.
The Appeal of Big Cats
There is something uniquely desirable about owning a tiger. At least, that is the underlying assumption that allows the private ownership of tigers and other exotic pets to persist. But we rarely ask why. For what earthly reason would someone want to keep a 600-pound carnivore whose natural instincts make it poorly-suited for living alongside humans. How is posing with a tiger for dating app profiles supposed to be superior than a domestic cat or dog?
Each person has their own reasons, but one of the key motives mentioned in the documentary series is the simple fact that it is unusual. Most people in the United States will never interact with a tiger. Thus, having one is a status symbol.
It can be considered an act of conspicuous consumption, a concept coined by nineteenth-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen to explain why people spend money on things like expensive silverware that provides no extra practical value. The mere act of possessing certain items imparts some form of social capital that allows the owner a sense of superiority. In today’s online lexicon, this can be encompassed by the term “clout.”
This is not the only reason that someone would want an exotic pet, but it is certainly one of the largest factors that keeps the industry running. If owning a tiger was commonplace, it is unlikely that it would be seen as so glamorous, or that people like Donald Trump Jr. would find the concept so appealing. Rarity allows it to remain a luxury product for the wealthy and the extremely dedicated.
Dark Secrets of the Exotic Pet Trade
At first, this all might seem merely superficial, a simple waste of money. But tigers are living animals, and treating them as consumer items with no greater purpose than bestowing social status is sure to result in horrid consequences.
A wild animal kept as a pet by an unfit owner is at serious risk of neglect and abuse. But greater horror comes from facilities like Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo. Very few people have the money or dedication to keep a tiger for themselves, so these zoos allow them to get some of the associated social capital by not only viewing the animals, but interacting with them through events like “cub petting” that let paying customers handle and take pictures with tiger cubs.
Here we find a bad combination: wild animals with complex needs, a morally dubious management, and a profit motive. G.W. Zoo struggled to cover its expenses, and it responded using a variety of unethical measures. Tigers were sold to circuses accused of animal abuse. Cubs were separated from their mothers immediately after birth for use in petting. Joe Exotic was charged with shooting five tigers in the zoo in order to make room for other animals.
Another figure in the big cat world covered by the documentary is Bhagavan Antle, director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.). While it proclaims itself to be a “wildlife education organization,” the main purpose of T.I.G.E.R.S. is to allow paying customers to get up close and personal with big cats.
It is unlikely that these consumers pay attention to the various controversies surrounding Antle. This ranges from allegations of the misogynistic and cult-like atmosphere that the all-female staff is forced to work in, to the claims that cubs are discretely killed and cremated once they grow too old to turn a profit.
Tiger King sheds light on eye-opening incidents, but these are far from the only ones. There are currently more tigers privately owned in the United States than there are in the wild.
Many people certainly possess the knowledge and responsibility to properly take care of exotic animals. But more numerous are the overly affluent collectors looking to show off and the opportunists hoping to make a profit. In either case, they see the animals merely as a product, and they are either oblivious or indifferent to any suffering that comes as a result.
The Consequences of Consumerism
Most of us have no involvement with the exotic pet trade, so we surely think that this is not relevant us. But the desire for products without care for consequences is universal in our culture. Few of us know the full social and environmental impact of everything we buy. Hopefully, none of our actions are so egregious as those of G.W. Zoo and T.I.G.E.R.S., but that does not mean we cannot hold them up as warnings of some of the worst excesses.
To some degree, this is inevitable. We cannot be expected, for instance, to research the entire supply chain of every article of clothing we wear or every piece of food we eat. Nor can we be faulted for driving gasoline-fueled cars if we lack affordable access to cleaner modes of transportation.
But some acts of conspicuous consumption are more questionable. We may have to drive cars, but there is no reason to go for overpriced gas guzzlers. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic rendered cruise ship tourism unviable for the foreseeable future, the industry was under fire for labor abuses, exploitation of local economies, and massive amounts of pollution. The trend of fast fashion, designed to be worn for a short time and then thrown out as soon as the next fad comes in, has predictable environmental consequences.
One of the most mundane examples may be the infamous AirPods. The Apple earbuds are unjustifiably expensive, but this makes them highly sought-after as a status symbol. This is more than a mere waste of money, however. Their lithium-ion batteries mean that they have a short lifespan of no more than a couple of years and they are too hazardous to go into the landfill. While there is a process for recycling them, many consumers simply throw them in the trash regardless.
All of this is rooted in modern society and basic human psychology. Addressing it is a complicated matter. But we can all start by thinking more critically. Consider the possible consequences when faced with the latest consumer trend. At the very least, do not be the type of person who comes out of Tiger King tempted to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a cub.