Tiger King Entertains, But Does Not Educate

Apr 3, 2020

Look, we were entertained watching the Tiger King. How could you not be? From the leather fringe fashion and acid wash jeans to the leftover Wal-Mart meat pizza, there was no crazy stone left unturned. However, the filmmakers fell short in educating viewers about the fate of the tigers featured in the series.

The Only Team We’re on is Team Tiger
There are more captive tigers in the United States than there are in the wild.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 5,000-7,000 caged tigers in this country. And, the World Wildlife Fund estimate there are just under 3,900 tigers living in the wild – with most of these tigers living in Asia. Tigers are just one type of the millions of exotic pets – legal or illegal - living in captivity in the United States.

At no point did the series show the truly inhumane conditions that many caged tigers live in, the lack of vet care, or the improper diets they consume. Male tigers need 23-39 square miles of territory to roam. Not many of us have that kind of space in our backyard.

What Kind of Laws Exist in Texas Relating to Exotic Pet Ownership?
In 2001, THLN enacted the Dangerous Wild Animal Act (DWAA, § 822.101, et seq.) which regulates exotic pet ownership in Texas. This law established minimum requirements for keeping a dangerous wild animal with treatment standards and pen/enclosure size requirements.

This law became necessary because many exotic animals end up living in inhumane conditions, without the necessary veterinary care, space, or safe confinement, creating a dangerous environment.

From left to right: Skip Trimble, Former THLN Legislative Chair, Ben Callison, Former Exec. Director, Black Beauty Ranch, Howard Baskin, Big Cat Rescue, and Tim Harrison, Outreach for Animals at THLN's 6th Annual Animal Advocacy Conference in 2014

OK, So Did a Bunch of “Animal Rights People” Make This Cruelty Up? What Good Does a Law Do?
No. From 1992-2001, there were 46 reported incidents involving a dangerous wild animal in Texas.

While 46 doesn’t sound like a lot of incidents, keep in mind the key word is ‘reported.’

More children had been killed or injured by captive big cats in Texas than any other state, including a 3-year-old Lee County boy and a 10-year-old Yorktown girl who were both killed by pet tigers. A Channelview 4-year-old lost his arm and a 4-year-old Harris County girl required extensive plastic surgery after being mauled by big cats.

As a result of the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, there were only 23 reported incidents involving dangerous wild animals in Texas from 2002-2012.

Did You Stop Counting After 2012?
No. Two things became clear: the law was not being enforced and big cat ownership is rampant in Texas because dangerous wild animals have become so easy to buy.

Unfortunately, many people who become owners don’t do their research or get realistic about the responsibility of caring for a big cat. Once an owner can no longer care for their big cat, they surrender them or simply let them loose, which endangers the public. Some recent examples:

  • 2011: 10 tigers from Van, Texas, were surrendered to a north Texas sanctuary because their former home was a small bare concrete enclosure.
  • 2016: A pet tiger was loose in Conroe, Texas and ended up at the animal shelter.
  • 2019: A tiger was found in a small cage in an abandoned Houston house.

What Happens Now?
For three legislative sessions (2011, 2013, and 2015), THLN co-sponsored legislation that would amend the Dangerous Wild Animal Act by banning the private ownership of tigers and other dangerous wild animals in Texas. In 2015, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging all legislative bodies to pass laws that ban exotic animal ownership in the United States. To date, no bill has passed to protect these animals and dangerous animal ownership continues in Texas.

What’s Happening Across the United States?
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, which is briefly mentioned in the Tiger King series, is a federal bill that would ban ownership of big cats as pets and stop exploitative roadside zoos from offering cub petting. THLN has supported this federal legislation. As of 2019, the Big Cat Public Safety Act has 138 cosponsors in the House. But, it still remains a bill.

Mark Your Territory
If a tiger pees on you, it’s marking you as part of its territory. So, help keep tigers and other exotic animals safe by allowing them to stay in their natural habitats – not our backyards.

Murder and mullets aside, the good thing about a series like the Tiger King, is that it brings awareness to an overlooked issue. Some might say that the series “glamorized” dangerous exotic animal ownership. If your idea of glamour is being covered in tiger urine, mud, and slinging raw meat, we may need to talk about raising your standards. But, if you could see through the show to the horrible issues these captive tigers experience, then you received the larger message – it’s time for stronger dangerous wild animal laws.

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  • Sarai Garcia
    Does the DWAA include elephants? Where does elephants fall into the THLN protections standards? If any at all?