Dear EarthTalk: Did the Tiger King documentary of 2020 have any impact on the business of illegal wildlife trafficking?
—Susan W., Raleigh, NC
Netflix’s Tiger King special was as informative as it was sensational, showcasing not only the wild nature of its main star, the Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic (Joseph Maldonado-Passage), but also the harm caused to big cats trapped within the exotic animal industry. On more than one occasion, the outlandish documentary highlights how terribly these animals were treated, all in the name of fame and fortune.
Thankfully, the special brought more to the table than just views, notoriety and cash. Since Tiger King first aired on March 20, 2020, a number of justices have been served.
First and foremost, Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo has been shut down, he has been charged and convicted on 17 counts of animal abuse, including the killing of five healthy tigers (as well as attempted murder for hire). As a result of his crimes, he will be serving 22 years in prison. Not only that, all the tigers that were kept in his captivity were eventually removed, and are now safely kept in a sanctuary in Colorado.
Secondly, President Joe Biden has gotten involved in the fight for big cats, a fight that was arguably championed by none other than Carol Baskin (an early supporter of the bill), the infamous star of the Tiger King special, and a rival of Joe Exotic. On December 20 of last year, Biden signed into law HR.263, otherwise known as the “Big Cat Public Safety Act.” According to the new law, private citizens may no longer breed, purchase or transport big cats; if they already own any, they must have them registered. The bill also restricts public contact with lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, snow leopards and jaguars, effectively ending the private ownership and exploitation of big cats in the US.
Thirdly, as much as the show focused on Joe Exotic, there was another character, Doc Antle, who was arguably guilty of many similar exploitations of big cats. In fact, during June of 2022, Antle, among others, was charged with both wildlife trafficking and money laundering, and will be facing a maximum of five years in prison for the wildlife charges, and 20 years for the money laundering charges.
Another, less obvious positive consequence of the Tiger King special is that the illegal wildlife industry is now under increased public scrutiny. The special itself was viewed by some 64 million households after a month and a half, drawing 5.3 billion minutes of view-time within the first week of its release. With these kinds of numbers, the exploitation of wild animals will be taken more seriously in the future.
If you’re looking to help big cats yourself, there are a number of conservation initiatives that focus on rehabilitating big-cat locales. For example, Save the Tiger Fund and Panthera are collaborating to increase tiger populations in specific locations by 50 percent over a 10-year period. They are looking for donations from those who are interested in helping out.
- Tiger King
- Tiger King takeaway: It’s time to end big cat breeding and trafficking
- 10 Key Facts About Tigers and How You Can Help Them Right Now
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