Forgotten Kings

Viewers may misconstrue well-timed documentary on big cats

Posted 4/8/20

The March 20 release – right in the middle of stay-at-home orders across the nation to combat the spread of COVID-19 -- of the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” captivated millions of quarantined streamers around the world in a three-week span.

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Forgotten Kings

Viewers may misconstrue well-timed documentary on big cats

Posted

The March 20 release – right in the middle of stay-at-home orders across the nation to combat the spread of COVID-19 -- of the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” captivated millions of quarantined streamers around the world in a three-week span.

The seven-part miniseries, filmed over a period of five years, highlights a number of eccentric members of the exotic animal community, including former Oklahoma big cat collector and zookeeper Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, and popular animal conservationist Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit organization.

A large portion of the documentary focuses on a heated feud between Exotic and Baskin, which ultimately landed the former in prison as a result of a murder-for-hire plot and animal abuse claims.

Exotic’s abnormal and often explosive personality, along with a rumor accusing Baskin of killing her first husband, Don Lewis, resulted in mass hysteria surrounding the series.

But in the midst of a raucous display of bizarre music videos, polygamy, drug use, suicide and alleged murder, many conservationists feel the majority of viewers have neglected the overarching point of the series: the abused animals themselves.

“People are missing what the core of the documentary is about,” said Courtney Frenchak, Director of the Oak Creek Zoological Conservatory Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary in Madisonville. Oak Creek is a 501c3 Non-Profit Conservatory Rescue that houses numerous animals, including tigers, lions, bears, various primates, various rodents, hyenas and alligators.

“Being that we are a wildlife sanctuary, we have so many animals here that have come out of those very situations. We have animals that have come from places that were specifically mentioned in that documentary.”

The series offers statistics, including the fact that there are more than twice as many tigers in captivity as there are in the wild (though with just a few sentences prefacing the closing credits of the miniseries), along with the dangers of the cub-petting industry, which is the practice of allowing people to handle and pet the young animals for a fee. This is a key element of the for-profit animal trade.

“Any facility pulling cubs is doing it for money, and they do touch on how much they are able to make from that in the documentary,” said Frenchak. “Ever since we took in our brown bear, Bailey, we have witnessed the psychological and emotional issues that animal has gone through.”

Bailey, a Syrian Brown Bear, was saved from the cub-petting industry after she was “tossed aside at four months old”, according to the Oak Creek website. On top of psychological issues, her teeth were cut to stop her from harming humans when lashing out in anger.

Cubs can experience Last Meal Syndrome as a result of the practice, which includes taking a bottle away from the animal after a brief feeding session in order to prepare them for the next group of customers.

“The animal is not being satisfied nutritionally, so they get to a point where they think they are going to starve,” said Frenchak. “Witnessing that is something so heart-breaking that I do not think the general public can quite grasp it. Until you see that, it is hard to understand how bad it really is.”

Oak Creek took in two tigers in January from another sanctuary that were once victims of the cub-petting industry in Florida. According to Frenchak, the female tiger, Asha, was likely going to be euthanized before the prior sanctuary stepped in to save her. The male, Simba, originally came from a similar facility.

“Once they reach a certain weight, they can no longer legally use them for cub-petting practices,” said Frenchak. “These places do not disclose what is happening to these animals after they are done using them. The public just sees that they are getting to pet dangerous animals.”

The cubs are “pulled” from their mothers upon birth to be used by the facilities for petting. According to Frenchak, many of the facilities will tell patrons the animal was rejected by the mother or they were not receiving enough nutrition.

“In their terms, there is always a long line of reasons as to why that animal needs to be bottle-fed,” said Frenchak. “A lot of times, first time moms will have a little bit of difficulty, but they will figure it out if you give them a chance. A lot of places do not care if the mother is going to figure it out or not, they just want to make money off the animal right away.”

Many animal activists urge the public to avoid facilities that practice cub petting at all costs, stating the animals are often euthanized when they become too big. Among Joe Exotic’s animal abuse charges included the execution of five tigers.

Many activists also believe exposing the animals to people in general can often result in negative psychological side effects.

“Once you expose them to people and they see us as a source of food and shelter, they will always see us as that,” said Frenchak. “Once that animal is in captivity, especially a mammal, the likelihood of them ever returning to the wild is so slim. Mammals get desensitized to people so easily. This is a big problem, even with some native species here.”

In the past, Oak Creek offered occasional tours of their facility for educational purposes but have long since limited all access to their small staff.

“New people made the animals uneasy,” said Frenchak. “Their attitudes and personalities completely changed. As a sanctuary, we feel like our main job is the protection of our animals.”

Frenchak also feels the problems surrounding the industry have only grown more prevalent of late.

“It is one of the biggest money makers for these places, so that is something they feel they need to have no matter what,” said Frenchak. “With this documentary coming out, I have a feeling it is going to grow even more because people are not taking away what is meant to be understood from it.”

The Big Cat Safety Act, if passed, would make cub petting illegal along with any kind of close interaction with the animals (sanctuaries and institutionalized zoos would be exempt). The federal bill passed out of full Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 18 and had 138 co-sponsors as of Sept. 27.

The bill was originally introduced in 2017 but, according to Big Cat Rescue, stalled in the House due to influence from roadside zoo lobbyists. This claim has not been proven.

“It is not that they are not trying to crack down on these things, it is just so hard because you have so many people who are able to fight against it,” said Frenchak.

Dawn Knight of Rufus Refuge also agreed that the vast majority of viewers missed the point of the series.

“People are making jokes about those in the documentary instead of focusing on what is really important, which is the abuse and exploitation of innocent animals,” said Knight. “It was very painful to watch. It is really sad and disappointing to see people making light of the abuse.”

The documentary concluded by emphasizing the fact that millions of dollars were spent in the constant legal battles between Exotic and Baskin, and none of it seemed to benefit the animals harmed in the background. For more information on the Oak Creek conservatory, visit oakcreekzc.org.

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