Netflix’s “Tiger King” fixated our gaze on the outlandish antics of Exotic Joe, but if you squint your eyes in just the right way, you could catch a glimpse of why wildlife trafficking has proliferated in the United States.
The documentary, which has been among Netflix’s most-watched shows in the United States for weeks, features several unaccredited, or what are termed “roadside zoos,” whose owners are hardly poster boys for animal conservation efforts. One zoo in Miami is owned by a convicted Cuban-American drug trafficker, Mario Tabraue, who fancies himself the inspiration for the infamous “Scarface” character, Tony Montana, and was featured on another animal trafficking documentary in 1994.
Another, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, has a workforce that he barely pays and uses to recruit for his personal harem, the documentary says. And another, Jeff Lowe, is an unabashed partier who the documentary says was questioned by police for beating his wife and brags about using baby tigers to lure women into hotel-room parties in Las Vegas.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking
But the heart of the documentary is the gun-toting, blonde-mullet-sporting, three-way-marriage-having Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic. Like many animal collectors, Maldonado-Passage began because of his love for tigers (the last episode of the documentary has some early footage of him that shows him in a more sympathetic light).
But money, professional jealousy and drugs—or a combination of all three—steadily undermined his cause, and soon Maldonado-Passage was speed-breeding big cats and charging visitors large sums of money to pass around the adorable furry baby tigers.
The trouble, of course, is that baby tigers grow up. At eight weeks, baby tigers can seriously injure someone. But because they are born in captivity, they will not survive in the wild, so they remain captive, are sold—mostly in the black market via the internet, to collectors and unaccredited zoos—or are killed by their owners.
The problem is huge. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are 3,900 tigers in the wild worldwide and as many as 5,000 in captivity in the US—only six percent of which are in accredited zoos and other accredited facilities.
So what makes the US such a great place for this business? Basically, the same thing that makes wildlife trafficking so lucrative in many parts of the world.
1. Antiquated Laws, No Regulations
US states largely govern the ownership and maintenance of these animals, but there are huge loopholes in the legislation. Ownership of animals like tigers is banned in 36 states, for example, but in many, you can still get a permit from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Ten states do not ban the ownership of the animals but also require a permit from the USDA. Four states have no legislation at all. One of these states is Oklahoma, where Maldonado-Passage had his roadside zoo.
Still, Joe Exotic didn’t necessarily flaunt these laws. In fact, the trafficking shown in “Tiger King” is reminiscent of wildlife trafficking we have investigated in the rest of the Americas in one important way: it uses a legal façade to move the animals.
In the federal indictment against Maldonado-Passage, prosecutors said that Maldonado-Passage sought to conceal his activities by falsifying transfer and inspection documents, and claiming the wildlife was “being donated to the recipient or transported for exhibition only, when he knew that, in fact, the wildlife was being sold in interstate commerce.”
“I took two baby tigers to California,” Marsha David, a former employee of Maldonado-Passage’s zoo, says in episode six, describing how she helped transfer and sell animals. “There was $5,000 exchanged in Branson, Missouri.”
The quote is surrounded by some startling footage of the zookeepers scrambling to put tigers in cages in the dead of night and Maldonado-Passage himself walking around with a syringe in his hand that he injects into an already subdued tiger being carried on a car trailer.
“You got six minutes,” he says, referring to the time before the tiger wakes.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill floating around Congress since 2012, would help address some of these issues, including questions regarding ownership and sale of the tigers. But the problem is bigger than the law. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) hopes that the passing of similar bills concerning natural resources in 2019 means the Big Cat Public Safety Act could soon come to a vote.
2. Poorly Resourced Law Enforcement
Animals like tigers are supposed to be protected by national legislation such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Lacey Act. Passed in 1973, the ESA forbids anyone from “taking” any species on a list created and maintained by the Secretary of the Interior in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Lacey Act makes it illegal to submit a false record for any animal sold via interstate or foreign commerce.
Both laws require enforcement, which simply does not exist in the United States. There are just 250 agents that work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to its website (which was last updated six-and-a-half years ago). Contrast that with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), long considered the forgotten bastard child of federal law enforcement, which has 2,630 agents.
Maldonado-Passage was eventually convicted of violating the ESA and the Lacey Act. But his case rose to the top of the files because of a murder-for-hire conspiracy, for which he was convicted as well. In fact, probably the most titillating part of the documentary is the outrageous plot to kill his longtime rival, Carole Baskin, who has an animal sanctuary in Florida, but Joe Exotic also executed at least five tigers.
3. Lack of Education On Wildlife Trafficking and Abuse
As it is in much of the Americas, tourism drives animal trafficking. The documentary quotes Doc Antle saying he charges as much as $600 for a single person to pet a baby tiger. Conservationists say such handling is animal cruelty. Joe Exotic, and all his counterparts who run roadside zoos, claim it is a way of life.
For the moment, they are not wrong. Maldonado-Passage, for example, ran for governor of Oklahoma in 2018. He finished third, illustrating that his quasi-libertarian ideology – which can be summed up, as he famously says, “This is my way of living, and nobody’s gonna tell me any otherwise” – is alive and well in the United States.