So I have been intermittently trying to record a video or podcast on the topics I’m going to blog about in this post. One reason is that I become emotionally overwhelmed when speaking on the subject of apex predator subordination, trafficking, and slavery by humans. It can be embarrassing, and it’s hard for me to compose myself around strangers even. I don’t know, some things just need to come out I guess. I cried like a baby the first time I experienced a memorial for rescued tigers whose remains had to be cremated to prevent any possibility for harvesting of their bones or organs. I visit it occasionally and silently cry. The sunlight as it spills through the foliage of ancient knotty and gnarly giant trees makes for a space of knowing, of love and respect that doesn’t require additional witnesses to display its force and power.
As a child, I faced a series of traumatic events very early on, and the tenderness it caused led me to sympathize with bears very much and I wept for their unfair treatment by humans. I was entranced by PBS wildlife specials for hours. I think what got me through some lonely and confusing points in those early years was treasuring a lovely ceramic sculpture of a mama bear and her cubs escaping into the woods just past a “no hunting” sign; it had a music box that once wound up played “Born Free”. And as sentimental as that may sound, it is symbolic of the crux of the matter for me – the sorrow for majestic animals that deserve mutual respect from humans and who in captivity will never be able to exercise their true potential. Due to human malfeasance, greed, and unchecked desire, those born into captivity will be very unlikely to fend for themselves if sent to the natural habitats of their forebears. This in turn is also the story of us, and what we are at risk of losing.
When the stars threw down their spears“The Tyger”, William Blake
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Over the summer, I watched the Netflix series Tiger King with my husband. As Wikipedia puts it: “The series explores the deeply interconnected community of big cat conservationists and collectors in America, and the private zoos and animal sanctuaries they have set up for the care and public display of these animals.” It is representative of why we do not have a Netflix subscription (we obtain such paragons of modern popcult by other means). My curiosity was piqued after becoming acquainted and volunteering with a true (no touch, no petting, and nonprofit) big cat sanctuary surprisingly close to our residence. I only came to realize its existence at all through some research I had been doing that directed me to the site for Carole Baskin’s organization, Big Cat Rescue, that then directed me to this local organization. And as turns out and that I will further explain below, there are some closer ties that my local organization has with the fate of Joe Exotic’s compound and the animals that were rescued in the aftermath of the show’s airing. I truly had no idea of Baskin’s or BCR’s involvement as I successfully ignored the initial marketing and meme campaign in 2020; I’m thankful to follow smart people on social media who don’t spread this madness, and most of us had, well, much more important things on our minds when it debuted in early 2020.
It is shocking that the show was made at all. There are some things it does well, but overall, it’s a hunger game series that is more acceptable because nearly all the people involved are despicable in some way, and the (mostly animal) victims of the main villains are deserving of justice a million times over. So you feel a little more comfortable seeing criminals scramble for their lives in this dramatized format. As 2020 had it though, everyone is up for sport with the correct lens applied by propagandists with deep pockets. Admittedly, the story of Doc Antle lit up all my brain’s rage centers in some sort of ashamedly delicious way, and I was utterly riveted by his rise to prominence and the stories of his alleged (human) victims — or were they collaborators with guilty consciences? I have never witnessed such a level of burning white hot narcissism from one person.
While the animals who suffered under these megalomaniacs seem almost secondary characters to the soap opera that played out between Joe Exotic and friends and Carole Baskin (could they have found a better match? That in itself seemed entirely scripted!), the sense of their superexploitation made my heart ache with pains I similarly felt for bears in my early formative years. This is one aspect I think that was executed brilliantly. On top of their capture, trade, and (in)breeding by Exotic’s outfit, the workers were treated like slaves themselves. Pay was awful for hours spent around the clock by what I would call a sincere band of misfits — these people really did care for the animals in their own ways which made taking advantage of them so much easier for Exotic and the wannabe lieutenants (in this obvious organized crime ring whose expiration date was nigh) who were always trying to get a piece of the action and include him on certain exploits of theirs as well.
One keeper had his forearm torn off through a fence by an eager and famished tiger. Having been kept on the verge of starvation as a cub to more readily pose with clueless visitors given food to entice him or her, the animal acted upon its nature in addition to its training. The care caged apex predators need is a daunting task to say the least, and you can use your imagination with regard to the cramped conditions they were kept in before even needing to read the facts for confirmation. And not to attribute fault to anyone who doesn’t think of the depth and entrenchment of this trade in North America and how it adds up to something more grotesque, the unthinking nature of spectators by hook – active participation by physically visiting such attractions or virtually by clicking, viewing, following (tacitly supporting) self-appointed mystics or gurus who woo onlookers with their alleged abilities to tame feline beasts; or by crook – consuming media products whose producers consult with maniacs like Doc Antle to exploit animals on film – in part perpetuates its existence, just below the surface of everyday human activities.
The volunteer coordinator at my local organization gave me the brief insight I needed to keep myself grounded with regard to this common desire people have to interact with big cats. I told her about a young girl I knew of a lifetime ago who was mauled to death by a full grown tiger a roadside “sanctuary” owner tried to pose her with for her senior photos. The cubs were “unavailable” that day for some unknown reason. I was acquainted with her father professionally, and his irresponsibility enraged me. How could you let your minor daughter do this without your direct oversight? Why don’t you have some basic realization of the danger involved? I think most of us do realize this and why you do not tempt fate in this way, but it seems like media has compounded consent in recent years to lure people into danger they might not think twice about subjecting themselves to if given the chance.
In that vein, and although our coordinator has witnessed the horror involved with rescue work for many years, she was able to express sympathetic understanding of why people are attracted to experiencing big cats in this way, even after I hissed out the anger I still feel toward this man who enabled the horrifying mauling death of his daughter. They want to be part of something unique and exciting, and that is larger than them. It’s modeled by multiple forms of media by owners who exploit wild cats in ways most cannot fathom. And despite the supposed groundswell of love and concern for cats of all kinds, they are simultaneously accused of being overanxious, annoyingly indecisive, and uppity. However, there is a level of peace and calmness that comes with caring for them like no other. And the return of love in such a unique way you feel like your heart could explode with unparalleled joy.
It is estimated that there are around 5,000 captive tigers in the US, more than the approximately 3,900 remaining in the wild. A vast majority of these captive tigers are privately owned and living in people’s backyards, roadside attractions, and private breeding facilities. Only an estimated 6% of the US captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Many of these private tiger owners aren’t properly trained to care for wild animals, making the animals vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation. Often these facilities will allow public contact with the tigers, including photo ops and playtimes with tiger cubs. Not only is the welfare of these tigers compromised, but public health and safety is at risk during these encounters.“5 Things Tiger King Doesn’t Explain About Captive Tigers”, worldwildlife.org, 31 March 2020
Through repetition, the show demonstrates that the most awing factor for the soldiers invited to take part in the world of wild cat trade is to possess the animals in some way. In any way possible. To be around them, to have access to beautiful wild cats that certainly do not need to be reined in or trained for survival otherwise, just because they can when most other people in the entire world cannot. It’s an exclusive club and quite the thrill to handle them. Yes, they are awesome, but the interest is fleeting and their allure is used to attract women (or feminized young men) in order to pimp them out as well. Often when one species “ages out” in the compounds, so does his or her counterpart. Tigers for these cretins are best when they are pliable cubs, unless kept into adulthood by naive waifs who either wise up or are thrown out for eating more than lettuce leaves or scavenged meat from the caged animals’ supply. It’s a constant theme and maybe a little heavy handed in its delivery at times considering the age-old comparisons of the feline to the feminine.
Cats are beautiful to look at and everyone loves them. Can’t you tell by the sheer number of their photos and videos on the internet? So many kittens to rescue and so many tearjerking tales to tell. Men who own cats are in touch with the deepest of their deep emotions; women are expected to like them more because canines are so brutish and masculine, but of course that poses the possibility of becoming a crazy cat lady who can’t form any other relationships, even with reality itself.
Propaganda with animals: Hitler’s dogs, Göring’s lions
Many photos show the leader of this cruel “elite,” Adolf Hitler, with his German shepherd Blondi. Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring, who was also the Reichsjägermeister (Master of the German Hunting Society), was rarely seen with his exotic pets. Between 1933 and 1940 he kept seven young lions in succession, which “for Göring were above all a sign of power and prestige,” writes Mohnhaupt.
As is so often the case, the Nazis were inspired by historical role models: the Roman Caesars kept lions, and Medieval European kings like Richard the Lionheart and Henry the Lion claimed the characteristics of the “king of animals”: power, strength and courage.
Cats regarded as ‘Jews among the animals’
The Nazis’ supposed love of animals also revealed their racial mania. Just like people, animals were divided into “valuable” and “unworthy” lives. While big cats of prey like lions and panthers were admired, Nazi writer Will Vesper characterized domestic cats as “treacherous, false and antisocial” because they stalk songbirds. Cats, Vesper concluded, were the “Jews among the animals.”
This too followed a sad, common tradition in Europe: Even back in the Middle Ages, cats as well as Jews were assumed to be in league with the devil.
No pets for Jews
A cat named Mujel was the pet of German writer and scholar Victor Klemperer and his wife Eva. When the Nazis came to power, Klemperer, who was Jewish, was gradually stripped of almost everything: reputation, profession and home. Beginning in September 1941, he was forced to pin a yellow “Jew’s star” to his clothes. Not much later, Jews were no longer allowed to keep pets. The Klemperers had to give up their beloved tomcat, their symbol of perseverance: “The cat’s tail held high in the air is our flag, we will not reel it in,” Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary. But the couple could not hide the cat, so they ended up having to put the animal down.“Hitler’s dogs: The Nazis and their pets”, dw.com, 8 June 2020
Carole Baskin was cast as a self-appointed big cat savior queen, and as much air time as she received, it appeared there was no love lost between her and the writers who, without explicitly stating their own positions, portrayed her to be “just as bad” as the roadside exhibitionists. They liked toying with the feline/feminine theme without providing anything really substantial about alleged misdeeds in her background. The time they spent on her disappeared former husband, Don Lewis, was mostly boring and filled with sheer speculation, ambulance chasers, and the snooty daughters he left behind who didn’t look like they were hurting for funds they think they should’ve received once he was legally declared dead. They, like Joe Exotic and all the other “animals rights” haters, just seemed to want to see Baskin and everything she stands for go down.
There was an unbalanced focus on what Baskin was alleged to have been guilty of in the realm of internet memery whereas Exotic, shown to have committed multiple offenses against the animals he claimed to care about on camera, was the subject of hero worship to many. Adding to this, he was the initial scapegoat among his circle they all tried to shift blame to once they knew the jig was up. However, it was she who was publicly pestered for appearing on Dancing With The Stars while there was very little to say of Exotic’s grooming of teenage boys to keep in his harem of sorts. In the years of what BCR’s team said amounted to harassment on Exotic’s part, he made claims that the organization did exactly what his private circus did in putting the animals on display for the public.
At one point, he flashed a picture of one of BCR’s rescues drinking from a caged water dish that only allowed for its head to fit into which pales in comparison to his crimes against big cats, but it’s a prime example of how stupid the “just as guilty” charges are. One of the main missions of nonprofits like this is to protect the public and human life as much as it is to provide abused cats “forever homes”. If the aggression level of certain cats poses a bigger threat to workers than others, then varying mitigation measures will be taken on a case by case basis. Duh. But the melee of memeing and dumbing down people to not ask basic questions is of course a big part of Netflix productions, particularly those that purport to be beneficial for their alleged documentary value. Furthermore, why are these self-described animal lovers so opposed to animal rights, and why would they claim that anyone else is “just as guilty” if they’ve done nothing wrong?
The biggest topic the series pushes is in reality a false dichotomy, that being animal rights versus property rights. The conservation that organizations like BCR and PETA promote overall isn’t necessarily about animals having rights as individuals, and as much as the organized crime soldiers claim to care about their animals as their property, they don’t. Having a stake to property rights in more egalitarian terms apart from the marxian understanding of private property that is every moron’s favorite doom mongering dogwhistle lately requires attentiveness and stewardship which is a standard of care none of these lowlifes executed. They bartered with each other in neglect by fiat that was becoming too big of a mess for the attendant federal agencies to control any longer.
And in that sense, these schemers who were “taken down” as the show aired were the ideal pawns under the broader mandate of PETA and the WWF as well. To be sure, PETA carries out important work on behalf of animals and provides resources when there are slim to none available for small time organizations with admirable goals, even though their public branding is outrageous and turns much of the public right off. But their class composition is exactly why they embark upon their infamous ad campaigns — it’s to distract from the fact that “animal rights” have nothing to do with the overall well-being of animals, and they couldn’t care less if they attract you or repulse you from their organization. To the contrary of what Tiger King claims to explore and expose, it obscures the purpose of animal rights which is merely euphemism for securing private property rights over all animals on behalf of the ruling class which has nothing to do with shady warehouse liquidators and private zoo gurus having rights to own animals as their property.
So it seems that this was aired at a strategic juncture where any pretense of working class ownership as we have known it was upended under the guise of the corona con. The professional parasitic “quaranteam” was sent home to consume this spectacular production while their runners and servants were muzzled and restricted like many of the animals they were stunned to learn about, rooting for a guy who didn’t really pose any threat to animal rights activists supposedly overstepping their bounds. Like good house cats should, they returned to the (new) normal scheme of things once they got all their shots and their cards that certified their status. But, like the running dogs they actually are, they shunned and excluded those who slaved for them as they cocooned themselves from having to share their tainted presence. It’s quite stunning in retrospect.
At one point in the show, one of Exotic’s associates commented that he must have had 250 tigers at the height of the operation. I do hope this was exaggeration as 68 were rescued by various organizations around the country. My local rescue received four last year, and they are a joy. Due to DOJ restrictions, the rescue couldn’t publicly confirm their presence until just this last summer. Samar is my favorite, a very rambunctious boy with the biggest head I have ever seen, beautiful eye markings, and with whom I share a birthday. As animal care volunteers, we are not to be closer than three feet of their enclosures while we are performing our tasks, but believe me, it’s close enough to be quite humbling!
Samar sits at the top of the hill, the top of the sanctuary. He has a sprawling enclosure in which he enjoys playfully stalking us (hah!) and rolling around and moaning for everyone to hear for hours, so everyone knows he is the star. Even three feet out, the love they express for their caretakers is apparent. Or maybe they think we’d be very delicious, or maybe it is a mix of all of this, considering their captive beginnings. Another one of my favorites rescued from the Tiger King zoo is Shailah, a “white tiger”, which is not a subspecies at all but through captive breeding is a result of a genetic mutation. She is less likely to lunge at you through her fence than Samar but pays close attention while you clean her water dish, and likes to lap up fresh water with her tongue that’s the size of a human torso as you pour it.
I find these to be thrilling and humbling experiences, and I love visiting them. But I wonder about what these beauties in particular saw. I wonder if they are happier here. I tend to believe they are — they get fresh meat they don’t have to hunt themselves, personalized medical care, plenty of room to roam that is tended to as well, and lots of love from staff and visitors. I think Shailah may miss closer companionship as she is the only tiger I’ve witnessed who plays chase with her neighbor as much as one can in a separate enclosure.
Regardless, they should live long comfortable lives as these big cats typically do in captivity, and they are the lucky ones, though they are all owed this level of care and concern. For me, I find the work important because it shouldn’t exist, and it’s the only way I can find to heal the sadness the conditions that led to it causes. There can be no human rights, no humanity, without respect and responsibility for those beings who can’t speak to their experiences. If we quit speaking for ourselves and exercising our own rights, we forfeit theirs and their dignity as well. It’s a state of affairs that cannot go on for much longer if we truly want to see collective survival.