Key facts that 'Tiger King' missed about captive tigers

By focusing on its larger-than-life characters, the popular Netflix docuseries leaves out important information on big cats.

Netflix’s recent documentary miniseries Tiger King has wild animals, ex-felons, a brief presidential campaign, polygamy, a murder-for-hire plot, and a huge cast of eccentric characters. It follows Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic,” the owner of Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which was, in its heyday, a prominent cub-petting, tiger-breeding operation and private zoo. Now Maldonado-Passage is serving 22 years in prison for plotting to have a critic murdered, killing five tigers, and illegally selling tigers across state lines.

Because the series is character-driven, it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the animal welfare and trade issues that surround the captive-tiger breeding industry. Exotic pets, captive wildlife, the illegal wildlife trade, and even Joe Exotic are topics National Geographic routinely covers, so here’s some contextual information.

Is tiger breeding conservation?

Some private tiger breeders argue that they’re helping shore up tigers, which are endangered in the wild. But their cats will never be released into the wild, both because they wouldn’t know how to fend for themselves and because of their genetics. There are multiple subspecies of tigers in the wild, each adapted to live in a certain part of the world. A Bengal tiger is not a Siberian tiger is not a Sumatran tiger. Most privately owned tigers in the U.S. are of mixed or unknown lineage and therefore are excluded from participating in captive-breeding efforts at accredited zoos and institutions that seek to preserve the subspecies.

What makes a good sanctuary or zoo?

According to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting organization, a true sanctuary exists to provide lifetime care to animals that have been abused, neglected, discarded, or are otherwise in need of help. A true sanctuary does not breed or allow hands-on interactions with animals, and it maintains high standards of care and operation.

For zoos in the U.S., accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires facilities to go above and beyond the basic requirements set by the government in terms of animal health, welfare, guest education, safety, recordkeeping, and more. Conservation is typically promoted as an important part of a zoo’s mission. (Many other countries have accrediting organizations too.)

“Pseudo-sanctuaries” and “roadside zoos” are loose terms that describe unaccredited facilities with low, or at least problematic, standards of operation and care.

What’s the deal with cub petting?

It’s easy to understand the impulse to want to play with an adorable tiger cub. But did you ever wonder why a facility seems to always have them? Or what happens when they’re not cute and tiny anymore?

Cub-petting facilities often speed-breed their tigers so there’s a constant supply, National Geographic reported in December. As soon as a litter is born, the cubs are removed from the mother, making her go into heat sooner so she can breed again.

Interacting with humans is also stressful for cubs. They’re very young; they’re not with their mother; and they’re being passed around amid bright lights, noise, and milling people that, to their tiny selves, could be predators.

Cubs are only economically (and legally) useful for a short time—eight weeks to 12 weeks old. They quickly get too dangerous to interact with visitors. They may become breeders themselves, or go on exhibit. There’s evidence that some are killed.

What's up with the ligers?

Cross-bred species abound in private zoos and menageries. In the wild, lion-tiger hybrids such as ligers and tigons don’t exist. In fact, the lions and tigers live in separate parts of the world. Cross-breeding species can cause genetic defects and health problems, according to Luke Hunter, a big cat scientist and conservationist, who talked to National Geographic in 2017 about big cat hybrids.

White tigers aren’t hybrids, but they’re not exactly natural, either—at least, not in the numbers we see in captivity. They’re simply tigers with white fur, and they’re rarely found in the wild. Intensive inbreeding to create and sell white tigers over the years means some suffer congenital defects that require lifetime care, wrote AZA CEO Dan Ashe in a recent post.

How can I tell if the tigers are well cared for?

If you’re thinking about visiting a sanctuary or zoo, here are some tips to help you identify ethical and responsible places. Tigers are big, nocturnal, solitary animals, and that means they have some special needs in captivity, according to graduate research by Leigh Pitsko, now at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. They need space to exercise, and they shouldn’t be crowded with other tigers. They need a place to hide if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by human visitors, and they should always have access to shade and water. Toys, activities, and climbing equipment are important for keeping tigers’ brains active, and enclosures with natural flooring substances, not concrete, are important not only for the health of their feet and skin but also for their well-being. The more natural their enclosure, the better.

To learn more about tigers in the U.S., including the patchwork of laws concerning ownership, the history of why there are so many tigers in the U.S., and the efforts to protect both tigers and humans, check out our December feature.

To see how tigers have been traded across the U.S., check out these maps.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

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