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from the desk of dan ashe

Tiger King and the Cruelty of Private Ownership of Wild Animals

By Dan Ashe
min read

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a Netflix documentary series gaining wide viewership during this time of social distancing and increased online streaming, shines a light on the cruel, abusive trade and mistreatment of wild animals in the United States. 

People care deeply for animals and nature—We know that. It’s why nearly 200 million visit AZA member facilities each year. But Tiger King displays a malignancy that we must recognize and address. 

Private ownership of tigers and other big cats, chimpanzees and other primates, and a wide range of other “exotic” animals as vanity pets or for commercial exploitation in poorly run roadside zoos is a serious animal welfare problem and poses real dangers to both people and animals. In some cases, private ownership even increases the risk of a species’ extinction.  

Charismatic species like tigers are ruthlessly exploited for profit by unscrupulous people with damaging consequences.  When young and still pliable, these animals are taken from their mothers and used in paid photo opportunities. When they outgrow their value as photo props, they face a future of abusive mistreatment.

Tigers, threatened by poaching and habitat loss in the wild, are inbred to produce cubs with a recessive mutant gene—the result being the famous white tigers. But like any inbred animal, they can suffer serious congenital defects that require lifetime care—care that is often unavailable or denied by the unqualified people running these travesties. 

In 2009, Travis the chimpanzee was killed by police after killing his owner’s friend. Zanesville, Ohio, has become infamously linked to the 2011 massacre of 49 animals—including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzlies, two wolves, and a baboon—when the owner of the menagerie released the animals and killed himself, putting both the public and emergency responders at risk.

This deadly commerce in wildlife must end. We simply must start drawing clear distinctions between malignant actors and responsible parties. And no community is better positioned to lead this effort than the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Our community stands for excellent animal welfare and care; we do not hybridize animals to produce carnival freaks with no conservation value; we oppose private ownership of dangerous exotic animals and the illegal and unethical trade and commercialization that it supports. We depend upon the public’s trust that the welfare and wellness of animals is our highest priority, and that we are conservation organizations dedicated to their place in nature.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness shines light on some of the most unsavory aspects of human nature, and thereby makes very entertaining reality TV. All the while, as the world struggles through a coronavirus pandemic, and beyond public view, real animal keepers, aquarists, curators, trainers, veterinarians, and facilities managers remain hard at work at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. Clearly “essential,” these dedicated professionals continue to prioritize the everyday and life-long health and well-being of the animals in their care. Meanwhile, Joe Exotic sits in jail serving a 22-year sentence for violating the Endangered Species Act and engaging in a murder-for-hire plot to protect his inbred menagerie.

It’s way past time that this country ended operations like those depicted in Tiger King: Murder Mayhem and Madness. We can start by passing sensible laws like the Big Cat Public Safety Act and others to end private ownership of dangerous wild animals. Then we must tackle the very difficult issue of the trade in animals that is the literal melting pot for the pathogenic horrors that we give names like MERS, SARS, and now COVID-19. That will be my next topic, so stay tuned!

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its 238 members are ready. Ready to lead. Ready to follow. Ready to go! Join us!! 

Dan Ashe is the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

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