When it first premiered in March, Netflix’s hit miniseries, Tiger King, revealed a fascinating and often disquieting glimpse into the bizarre world of big cat ownership. The show immediately became something of a cultural phenomenon, thanks to its colorful cast of characters and outlandish plot twists, but it also catapulted the plight of thousands of big cats into the national spotlight. For the few remaining people who haven’t seen it, the core of the show revolves around a bitter feud between self-proclaimed “Tiger King,” Joe Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, who ran a for-profit zoo specializing in big cats, and Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue, an exotic animal sanctuary. The feud between the two rivals is indicative of a greater national divide regarding the treatment and regulation of exotic animals.
Interspersed throughout the show’s over-the-top antics are sobering statistics, such as the fact that only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild today. Almost double that number languish in captivity throughout the United States, many in poorly regulated roadside attractions and shabby zoos. Ridiculous protagonists aside, Tiger King casts into stark relief the clash between exotic animal enthusiasts who believe that owning a wild animal should be none of the government’s concern, and those who feel strongly that the exotic animal trade is ethically wrong.
North Carolina has some of the weakest exotic animal ownership laws anywhere in the country.
Legislation regarding wild animal ownership varies tremendously from state to state. In Nevada, Wisconsin, Alabama, and North Carolina, members of the public are allowed to own exotic animals as pets, provided that they can produce health certificates or import permits. North Carolina has no statewide statute concerning the ownership of exotic animals. Instead, the state has left it up to the individual counties to determine their own ordinances. A startling 43 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties lack any type of law governing ownership of wild animals. Of those that do regulate wild animal ownership, some, like Rowan County, require nothing more than a permit. Other counties with stricter laws, such as Watauga County, still allow nonprofit organizations to own big cats and for-profit zoos to maintain exotic animals because of their entertainment value.
North Carolina lawmakers have attempted to introduce more cohesive statewide legislation, but any sort of sweeping reformatory action consistently stalls short of reaching a vote in the General Assembly. Historically, wild animal reform laws have only come on the heels of a tragedy resulting from a lack of exotic animal oversight. One of the most prominent of these catastrophes occurred in 2011, in the town of Zanesville, Ohio, where self-proclaimed zookeeper Terry Thompson killed himself, but not before releasing all of his exotic animals into the unsuspecting community. Eighteen endangered Bengal tigers were among the animals put down by local law enforcement.
Current USDA regulations offer limited protections for big cats.
Regardless of nonprofit or for-profit status, facilities that trade or exhibit wild animals must meet specific standards promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to remain accredited. In theory, these regulations serve as a safeguard against irresponsible zookeeping, but in reality, they function more like a bare minimum standard. Furthermore, USDA inspections might soon be reduced to every three years, instead of the current requirement of annual inspections. The lack of more vigorous oversight by the USDA has some in Congress pointing the finger at the Trump administration’s decision to focus less on active enforcement, and more on “teachable moments,” wherein so-called minor infractions are not penalized.
In particular, the restrictions issued by the USDA concerning cub petting are especially feeble. Only cubs between the ages of 4 to 12 weeks may be used for cub petting, at which time they become a liability instead of an asset to the owner. To cut down costs of caring for a tiger that has outlived its usefulness, the owner will then often sell the animal. Veterinary records show that between 2013 and 2018, Joe Exotic alone shipped more than 100 tigers out of state, often selling them for $5,000 or more. Despite this practice being illegal without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA’s inconsistent enforcement has made the financial rewards worth the risk for many, including Joe Exotic.
Current ownership laws have not prevented accredited zoos from running afoul of the USDA. Henry Hampton, the owner of Lazy 5 Ranch outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, received over 50 citations in 2018 in conjunction with allegations of multiple ongoing violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The Act serves as the floor for the minimally acceptable behavior in exotic animal dealing, research, and exhibitions, and is the only federal law presently in existence that covers all of these issues. Other federal laws addressing more specific areas of exotic animal regulation all refer to the Animal Welfare Act.
The violations at Lazy 5 Ranch were brought to light when PETA filed a lawsuit against the USDA for renewing the Ranch’s license. However, the reality is that USDA violations rarely lead to a license revocation. For the Lazy 5 Ranch, the allegations of improper conduct resulted in a March of 2019 settlement that included a $20,000 fine, with Lazy 5 Ranch admitting to none of the charges. In fact, Joe Exotic’s facility was fined tens of thousands of dollars by the USDA over a period of more than a decade but never lost its accreditation. The USDA’s enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act has grown increasingly lax in recent years, with investigations and citations for violations dropping by 65% since President Trump took office.
The current regulations in place for accreditation of exotic animal facilities are a jumble of overlapping agencies and misleading terminology.
The different levels of accreditation can be bewildering to navigate for someone who is not familiar with the technical differences between sanctuaries and zoos. While the term “sanctuary” may be more likely to bring to mind images of well-treated animals with wide-open spaces than a roadside zoo, in reality, the two can be almost indistinguishable. To qualify as an actual sanctuary, the organization is not permitted to purchase or sell wild animals, breed them, or allow the public to interact directly with the animals.
Facilities focusing more on conservation are often members of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). Members of the GFAS do not breed their animals, which is an important distinction from many for-profit zoos, or even other sanctuaries. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides an exceptionally high standard of accreditation for 236 facilities, including those owned by Disney. On the other end of the spectrum, zoos and roadside attractions can instead be accredited by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which, while legitimate, still allows cub petting. In short, while an accredited zoo might sound satisfactory to the public, the range of what is actually required to meet and maintain accreditation is vast.
Stricter federal legislation remains on the horizon, but has failed to gather the necessary support to prevent it from languishing in Congress.
Congress passed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act in 2003, which was designed to prevent the transportation and sale of big cats across state lines. To circumvent this restriction, all that is required by law is to obtain a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Agency. Exotic animals that are not transported across state lines are subject only to whatever regulations the individual state may choose to enforce. For some states, like North Carolina, this means almost nonexistent legislation.
At the federal level, animal advocacy organizations such as the infamous Big Cat Rescue from Tiger King, as well as more established foundations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have pushed unsuccessfully for the implementation of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The Act was originally introduced on March 30, 2017, and would make the controversial concept of cub petting illegal, with heavy penalties of up to $20,000 or a prison sentence of up to five years for those found in violation.
Although Big Cat Rescue claims that lobbyists for roadside zoos have thus far thwarted their efforts to pass the Act, there is no clear evidence that any such lobby exists. As Karin Brulliard, a reporter for the Washington Post writes, the more likely explanation is that since “most of the animals are crossbred ‘generic’ variants of wild tigers and considered not relevant to conservation,” government officials simply have not felt a need to get involved in efforts to save big cats. However, the Act might not be dead yet. Eric Goode, one of the directors of Tiger King, recently stated that the show jump-started renewed support for the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
Tiger King created polarizing reactions but brought increased visibility to conservation efforts.
Tiger King received its fair share of criticism upon release, particularly from conservationists who claimed that the show promotes the drama of a compelling narrative arc over the welfare of the captive tigers. Regardless of the negative feedback, there is no denying that the runaway hit exposed the world of big cats to an enormous audience. While the ultimate fate of big cats in the United States remains in jeopardy, the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act could mean the beginning of the end for loosely regulated roadside zoos. For North Carolina however, the path to more comprehensive reform laws remains unclear.