It’s been more than a year since Americans began binge-watching Netflix’s hit series “Tiger King” — and hopefully realized that, despite how badly sensationalized the story was, the treatment of these captive animals was no laughing matter.
Despite having worked with Carole and Howard Baskin — the animal protection advocates featured in the series and the folks who make Big Cat Rescue tick — for the past several years, even I found myself caught up in the mayhem and madness of the reality television saga as it was portrayed. But I was glad that the show put the terrible treatment of tigers in the spotlight in a manner I hadn’t seen before.
Yet the problems with the exotic cat trade and commercial cub petting persist. We’ve actually seen a rise in the breeding of tigers and other big cats — as well as incidents with tigers on the loose in Houston and San Antonio in recent months.
There has, however, also been a step-up in enforcement of our existing patchwork set of laws.
It seems like their collective 15 minutes of fame has been followed by hours of investigations and seizures by all manner of law enforcement agencies.
The Tiger King himself — the self-proclaimed Joe Exotic — remains in prison after his 2019 conviction on charges related to a murder-for-hire plot against Carol Baskin, the killing of five tigers in his care and falsifying records related to the transfer of his animals. His attempts to secure a pardon from then-President Donald Trump were ultimately unsuccessful.
And now his brethren in the exotic animal trade are also under scrutiny. It seems like their collective 15 minutes of fame has been followed by hours of investigations and seizures by all manner of law enforcement agencies.
There are state wildlife trafficking charges pending in Virginia against “Tiger King’s” Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who runs a wildlife-petting operation in South Carolina. Meanwhile, Tim Stark’s menagerie in Indiana had its license revoked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February 2020, his nonprofit was ordered shut down by Indiana authorities, a federal judge ordered that the animals be temporarily transferred to other facilities, and he was eventually barred from owning any exotic animals in April.
And just last week, the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized 68 lions, tigers, lion-tiger hybrids and a jaguar from an Oklahoma menagerie owned by Jeff Lowe — which he took over from Joe Exotic. Lowe’s attorney has said he’s done with the business and is happy to see the animals moved to sanctuaries.
I was glad that the show put the terrible treatment of tigers in the spotlight in a manner I hadn’t seen before.
The seizure occurred after U.S. District Judge John F. Heil III issued a hard-hitting preliminary judgment against Lowe in January, following a series of legal actions brought against him for his failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act. According to The Associated Press, Heil found Lowe and his wife, Lauren, in contempt this month for failing to comply with court orders to employ a qualified veterinarian and establish a program of veterinary care for the animals. Many of the big cats seized were living in horrendous conditions.
Carole Baskin, of course, voiced approval of the seizure on Facebook: “Champaign and Brie tonight!” she wrote. “I hope not a single wild animal is left behind today!”
And former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson — now the co-chair of the Animal Wellness’ National Law Enforcement Council — echoed her sentiments: “Joe Exotic and Jeff Lowe ran slipshod operations and the chickens have come home to roost.”
Cub petting — which formed the cornerstone of Joe Exotic and Jeff Lowe’s enterprises — lasts just a few months for each animal. After that, the cubs become too big to handle, which is why unscrupulous operators must keep breeding tigers and lions: to keep a fresh supply of cubs in the pipeline. They care less, of course, about what happens to the adult animals — and each captive tiger or lion brought into that world, if such breeders allow them to survive to adulthood and don’t traffic them, often costs the animal sanctuaries eventually entrusted with their care millions of dollars over the course of the cat’s lifetime.
The trade in big cats creates costly unfunded mandates for rescues, dangerous potential hazards for humans, and provides these innocent creatures with nothing but miserable lives.
That’s why animal advocates and Members of Congress are pressing for the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263 in the House and S. 1210 in the Senate), which seeks to stop the trade in big cats as pets — including breeding the animals for cub petting opportunities by paying customers. A similar bill passed the U.S. House last December but wasn’t afforded a vote in the Senate, so now its sponsors have to start anew.
There is broad support for the legislation outside the animal protection community. For instance, it is supported by the National Sheriff’s Association and Fraternal Order of Police. They not only know all too well the fate of animals conscripted into this exploitation, but police and other first responders do not want to confront a 350-pound tiger when they rush in to stop a fire, attend to medical injuries or interrupt a domestic dispute.
The measure is also backed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the leading trade association in the industry. Responsible zoos and similar organizations understand the horrors and dangers of big cats running loose: Take a ghastly 2011 incident in Ohio, in which a mentally troubled exotic animal owner released 50 exotic animals — including grizzly bears, wolves and big cats — into the community just before dusk. Sheriffs’ deputies were ordered to shoot the animals for public safety purposes; it was a gruesome sight, and wholly preventable.
But beyond all of this, the trade in big cats (and the practices behind it) creates costly unfunded mandates for rescues, dangerous potential hazards for humans, and provides these innocent creatures with nothing but miserable lives. The cubs are ripped from their mothers at birth — and thereby robbed of the proper nutrition found only in mothers’ milk — denied sleep while being handled for hours on end, and physically punished for exhibiting their natural behaviors.
The exploitation of big cats displayed by modern-day hucksters like Jeff Lowe should be put to an end. House and Senate leaders in both parties need to come together to swiftly bring the Big Cat Public Safety Act to a vote so that President Joe Biden can sign it into law.