In late August, Dwight Turner paid $150 to get inside a cage with a black leopard at a house in Florida. Almost immediately, the leopard attacked, ripping his right ear in half with its teeth and tearing into his head. His wife had to press a dangling flap of his scalp back in place.
The incident, which took place at the home of animal dealer Michael Poggi in Davie, Florida, occurred during what was supposed to be a “full-contact experience” with the leopard, in which Turner would rub its belly and take photos with it.
The attack is a stark reminder that big cats are dangerous to people—a reality that’s become muddled through the lens of social media. Many big cat owners have shot to fame through Netflix’s hit docuseries Tiger King, and on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram by posting videos of themselves play-wrestling and swimming with their adult tigers and lions, creating a false impression that these encounters are safe.
“These are animals whose brains are literally designed to be ambush predators,” says Imogene Cancellare, a National Geographic Explorer and conservation biologist studying snow leopards. “There is no scenario in which entering a [space] with a big cat is going to be 100 percent safe, even if it’s been hand-raised,” she says, as the majority of big cats in roadside and backyard zoos around the country have been.
Hand-raised big cats are still genetically wild, and they’ve been conditioned to interact with owners only as a function of being fed by them, she says. “At the end of the day, in my professional opinion, there is nothing you can do to make a tiger or lion or jaguar love you enough to overcome its predatory instincts that can turn on a dime.”
An illegal encounter
After the attack, first reported by Local 10 News in Florida, Turner underwent two surgeries and got 22 staples in his head. He’s still at risk of losing his right ear, according to a report filed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which investigated the case. Turner intends to file a lawsuit against Poggi, the owner of the leopard, his lawyer told Local 10 News.
Poggi did not respond to a National Geographic request for comment by time of publication.
He is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an animal dealer, and he owns the leopard legally. But Florida law prohibits letting a visitor have full contact with a big cat larger than 25 pounds. FWC charged Poggi with “allowing a member of the public full contact with an extremely dangerous full grown black leopard” and “maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe condition,” according to the police report. Poggi is set to appear in court on December 2 and faces penalties of up to a year and a half in jail, and $1,500 in fines.
Federal regulations also state that barriers must exist between the public and big cats 12 weeks or older. For this reason, adult big cat encounters are rare at U.S. roadside zoos. The margin of error in these interactions, says National Geographic Explorer Andrew Stein, founder of CLAWS Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on mitigating human-wildlife conflict, “is the difference between having a safe encounter and possibly dying.”
Nonetheless, these tourist encounters are commonplace in other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, and are normalized by many Insta-famous big cat owners, who interact with their own animals in social media videos.
The allure of social media fantasy
There’s “this Jungle Book-esque romanticism in communing with animals,” says Siobhan Speiran, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, who has spent the last three years researching social media’s influence on people’s perceptions of wild animals. Popular exotic animal owners like Kody Antle, Kevin “The Lion Whisperer” Richardson, and Eduardo Serio of Black Jaguar White Tiger in Mexico all have acquired millions of followers by regularly posting videos of themselves wrestling with their big cats—like modern-day Mowglis.
These posts and videos “create a mythology around animal handlers—especially men,” Speiran says. “The mystique of it all, like, ‘Wow, they have their own lion pride!’” can drive someone to want to do it too, she says, “not realizing that it’s a totally artificial creation. This man isn’t a lion whisperer—it’s completely unnatural.”
But people buy into it, wanting to be close to these animal whisperers “like I want to be close to Jane Goodall,” Speiran says, noting that admiration for people who seem to share bonds with animals is probably a universal feeling for any animal lover.
The social media worlds these big cat owners create, however, make it difficult for the average person to tell the difference between someone who keeps, breeds, and sells access to exotic wildlife, and a conservationist, like Goodall, who works to save them, she says.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many roadside zoo owners and breeders bill themselves as rescuers or advertise that their businesses help fund conservation. Kody Antle’s family runs a charity that purports to raise money for wild tiger conservation; Poggi describes his business as an animal sanctuary (legitimate sanctuaries typically do not allow public contact with wild animals, according to the Global Federation for Animal Sanctuaries). These are common marketing tactics used in the private zoo industry so customers feel like the money they’re paying to interact with wild animals is helping them.
Welfare issues at roadside zoos have been well-documented. In addition to speed-breeding tigers so there are always cubs for tourists to cuddle, some fail to provide adequate food, enclosures, and veterinary care. Just last month, Doc Antle, Kody’s father and the owner of the family’s Myrtle Beach Safari roadside zoo, was charged with wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty. Another Tiger King character, Jeff Lowe, lost his license to exhibit animals after authorities documented numerous cases of animal suffering.
“Folks probably think if [private big cat ownership] is really that bad, it would be illegal,” Speiran says. But “animals are, in many ways, the last frontier of social justice.”
Cancellare, Speiran, and Stein all say that the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill that aims to federally prohibit commercial breeding, public handling, and ownership of big cats as pets, could make a difference in curbing big cat ownership and backyard breeding in the U.S., protecting animals and people alike.
Eliminating cub-petting would “put a huge wrench in the demand for a constant supply of privately bred big cats and slow down interactions with adult animals as well—hopefully resulting in fewer articles being put out about maulings,” Cancellare says.
The point of these animals’ existence isn’t to be snuggled by people; the point we should be driving home, she says, “is to leave them alone.”