Exeter, Devon UK • May 24, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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The ‘Tiger King’ Conundrum

Erica Mannis weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of animal captivity in the wake of Netflix's 'Tiger King'
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Image: Pixabay

The Tiger King Conundrum

Erica Mannis weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of animal captivity in the wake of Netflix’s Tiger King

Netflix’s newest cult documentary series, Tiger King, has engrossed us all. It’s a wild ride with captivating characters that take you through a world of polygamy, presidential campaigns and even a murder for hire plot. However, many critics feel that the themes of tiger care, abuse of animals by private owners, and awareness of conservation are lost within the more ‘dramatic’ elements of the show. So, what is life really like for privately owned tigers in the US? How ethical are zoos? How do we invest effectively in protecting threatened species like big cats?

It’s estimated between 5,000 – 10,000 tigers are kept captive in the USA, whilst only 4,000 remain in the wild. The staggering number of tigers in captivity deserve true care, even when uprooted from their natural habitat. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries defines true sanctuary as the acceptance of neglected, abused or discarded animals and the provision of lifetime care. This should not include breeding or allowing hands-on interactions with animals according to them.

It’s estimated between 5,000 – 10,000 tigers are kept captive in the USA, whilst only 4,000 remain in the wild.

In the Tiger King series, it’s common to see breeding justified as increasing population numbers; however, this only perpetuates captivity. There are no cases of tigers in captivity being returned to the wild. In species conservation the main aim should be to increase wild population numbers in-situ, not to continue breeding in zoos for entertainment purposes.

It’s also common to see cub handling during the series. Cubs are only profitable in this way when 8-12 weeks old, after that many cubs ‘disappear’. Cubs are also removed from their mothers early, so that the mothers go into heat again quickly and produce more young. The act of cub handling itself involves loud areas with lots of people, a stressful and unethical situation for the animals. The subsequent social media photos with cubs advertise the continuation of this mistreatment.

In America, tigers can be purchased online or at auction, sometimes for a price lower than that of a pure-bred puppy. There is no federal law preventing ownership of a tiger, although some states have passed bans or permit requirements. With such relaxed laws it is unsurprising to see the ‘roadside’ or ‘pseudo-zoos’ in Tiger King, which are unaccredited and have a low standard of care. Private ownership and ‘pseudo-zoos’ are highly dangerous situations for an animal to be in, which is greatly glossed over in Tiger King.

A zoo should be a safe space for the animal, justified by conservation, research, and educational efforts. However, many now question whether the common zoo is outdated. Perhaps sanctuaries or in-situ conservation are the way forward. Could more be learnt from an Attenborough documentary than a trip to your local zoo? Or, as Attenborough himself believes, is it true “Only the sight of a creature in the flesh can give us a true understanding of its nature”?

A zoo should be a safe space for the animal, justified by conservation, research, and educational efforts.

Attenborough has also made clear his belief that large mammals should not be kept in zoos unless threatened with extinction. It is easy to see why, as it’s nearly impossible to create a space large enough for their requirements. Yet only a small percentage of zoo wildlife is endangered and only around 15% is threatened. The great majority of animals are purely for entertainment purposes. Additionally, animals are rarely reintroduced into the wild due to habitat loss, conflict with human activity, or an inability to survive in a natural setting because of disease or incorrect genetic profiling.

Zoos can have very positive impacts, though. Sometimes they’re necessary when natural habitats become unliveable. Excess in Chester Zoo’s annual turnover is donated to conservation efforts. Larger zoos, such as Chester, Edinburgh and London have greater success re-wilding animals and larger funds for education services.

An in-situ natural reserve would be the ideal solution – an area where the animal is safe and protected – but in-situ conservation is often limited due to circumstances such as economic insecurity, invasive species competition, or civil war in native countries. The areas needed can be difficult to secure, sometimes armed forces must be brought in to protect the perimeter.

With technology giving us the ability to study animals (safely and from a distance) in natural environments and explain this in documentary or virtual form, zoos can be seen as outdated for educational and research purposes. However, it’s important to remember their value as a last resort conservation solution when natural habitats are no longer viable options.

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