Course:CONS200/2023/Tiger King and the Wild Cat Trade in the U.S.

From UBC Wiki

In the United States, the wild cat trade and captivity have risen dramatically while wild populations of tigers and other big cats have been declining or facing extinction in their respective habitats. This page provides issues on the history, current status, and the future of legal and illegal trade of wild, big cats including tigers and other exotic species in the United States in relation to Tiger King. Big cats includes species of lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, cougar, or any hybrid of such species.[1] With the introduction of Netflix’s hit tv series Tiger King, the big cat trade and exotic animal zoos have brought fanfare to the demise of many captive tigers while simultaneously failing to highlight broader issues of illegal animal trading, forced breeding, and captivity. Figures like Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are illustrated as the main characters within the show, and the captive tigers and exotic species within animal sanctuaries are subject to objectification, politicization, and media craze. Population differences between species also exist due to cultural values, with lions and jaguars numbering more than tigers. With increased attention and viewership, Tiger King had possible effects on (1) increasing wild cat trade awareness, (2) President Biden signing the Big Cat Public Safety Act and outlawing the ownership of big cats as pets, and (3) restricting direct contact between the public and big cats on December 20, 2022.[1]

Netflix’s Tiger King

Tiger King's Joe Exotic

The Tiger King: Murder, Madness, and Mayhem is a 3-season docuseries written by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin and released by Netflix on March 20, 2020. The 7-episode show documents the zany life of Joe Exotic (Joseph Passage Maldonaldo), a gay, self-proclaimed cowboy who owned the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Other characters are also featured in relation to Joe such as Carole Baskin, a featured arch-nemesis of Joe and owner of Big Cat Rescue, Doc Antle, his rival, and Jeff Lowe, the eventual investor and owner of G. W. Zoo. Tiger King was immediately popular upon release reaching 34.3 million unique viewers within its first 10 days while engaging the public in the issues of private, big cat ownership.[2] The culmination of the series dramatizes Joe’s incarceration due to animal cruelty, including killing and selling tigers, and murder-for-hire charges against Carole Baskin. With the show’s immense popularity and wide coverage throughout media and the public eye, an idea termed the “Tiger King effect” emerged, describing the show’s potential to influence public attitudes and behaviors toward the treatment of wild cats.[2]

Status of the Wild Cat Trade Prior to Tiger King

Tigers and their products had been traded continuously throughout history. Body parts such as teeth, skin, and claws are used decoratively.[3] Bones are also used for their medicinal properties.[3] Since 1994 when tigers were used for traditional medicinal uses, recent reviews have linked their diminishing populations to a shift stemming from the desire for exotic products.[3] The increase in demand and poaching poses the biggest threat to tigers' ranges around the world.[3] In addition to poaching, tigers have a history of conflict with humans and livestock.[3] As a result, their habitat ranges have been further reduced to 10% of their original scale.[3]

In 2018, 14,918 Asian big cats held in 1,156 facilities across 73 countries were recorded within the Asian Big Cats in Captivity Database.[4] In the case of tiger populations, there are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are wild tigers left in the world, with an estimated 5,000 versus 4,500 respectively.[5] At the time, while the global aspects of the wild cat trade were known, the extent of U.S. involvement within and across its borders was largely uncertain. However, a 2022 study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) determined that seizures of tiger parts trafficked through U.S. between 2003 and 2012 accounted over half of illegal trades, presenting a much larger involvement than what was previously assumed.[6] While it is still difficult to determine the exact number of wild cats that are traded through the exotic pet market, the United States plays an undoubted role in the present and future of the wild cat trade.

Problems with the Wild Cat Trade in the United States

Biodiversity Loss

Large wild cats like tigers are large predatory mammals with slow reproductive rates, meaning that they are harder to recover in nature than other animals. It is also suggested that tigers have attributes of keystone predators.[7] Wild cats have a disproportionate impact on their ecosystems relative to their abundance, which their removal can cause significant changes in the structure and function of the ecosystem.[8] They are extremely important to ecosystems, such as rainforests, grasslands, savannas, and even mangrove swamps, and their absence can cause serious biodiversity loss in native regions.[9] According to the IUCN Red List, all five species in the Panthera big cat genus have been decreasing.[10] The conservation status of tigers is currently endangered.

Studies have shown that the global exotic pet trade has been a leading factor in biodiversity loss in recent years.[11] Mammal species are three times more likely to be threatened if reported in the exotic pet trade, despite their low trade numbers compared to other animals. As a result, the exotic pet market poses a notable threat to the population and survival of big cat species.

Incentives in Wild Cat Ownership

Upper-class individuals may consider owning wild cats as a way to display their wealth and influence, increasing the popularity of the wild cat trade.[12] Zooarchaeological records have shown that commandeering luxury animals denote political status in the United States since the prehistoric periods.[12] In the Mississippian society, elites were able to use political leverage to consume better-quality meat.[12] In the Hawaiian Islands, chiefs demanded the use of animal meat for elite meals, thus creating differences in status due to these animals.[13] Historical factors, such as these, might be at play for the ideological roles of owning exotic pets to establish status differentiation in complex societies, including the United States.[12]

Economic incentives might also be a motivation for individuals to own wild cats, such as to create private exotic animal exhibits with interactive experiences. It has been reported that 75% of 1200 zoos surveyed by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums offer at least one activity where visitors have direct contact with live, captive, wild animals.[14] Since wild animals have been brought into captivity in zoos with confined conditions and exposure to humans, they have suffered from physiological stress and the inability to survive in the wild, through decreased reproductive capacity and weight loss. [15]


Lenient regulations prior to Tiger King have allowed wild cat transactions to occur with minimal restrictions. In 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement was signed and implemented in the United States, which prohibits the import and export of endangered species, as well as the transport of any species without a permit. [16] Additionally, in 1996, the Animal Welfare Act was signed into law, which authorised the federal government to prohibit commercial imports of species. [17] However, issued legislation prioritized limiting exotic birds instead of big cats, as heavy international trading brought ten bird species in immediate danger of extinction.[17]

The ownership and breeding of exotic pets were not regulated as of 2020, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.[18] One of the common practices is declawing, which cuts the nails of wild cats to make them less dangerous to handle. It is considered animal cruelty across many countries outside the United States, but New York was the only state that banned the such practice in 2019.[19] Limited public recognition of ethics on wild cat conservation also caused minimal efforts in enforcing legislation.

Big Cat Public Safety Act, which aims to prohibit cub petting and private ownership of big cats, was initiated by Illinois representative Mike Quigley. While the bill failed to pass the US Senate in 2019, it was reintroduced and signed into law in December 2022 after the release of Tiger King .

Human Health Risks

While wildlife trafficking is ranked lower than other forms of trafficking, including drug, arms, and humans in terms of overall crime costs and profits, it poses the threat of being more costly and severe in nature due to the possible transmission of zoonotic diseases that can result from handling exotic species.[20] Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that are "bacterial, viral or parasitic, and can spread to humans by direct contact with domestic, agricultural or wild animals, or through food and water."[21] They represent approximately 75% of wildlife diseases and are responsible for 2.5 billion illnesses and 2.7 million deaths worldwide each year.[21] Due to the threat of these diseases, the consumption and ownership of exotic wildlife propose dangerous health risks worldwide. Concerns on transmission of zoonotic diseases have risen due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Impacts of Tiger King on the Wild Cat Trade

Accuracy in reflecting conservation efforts toward wild cat protection

Tiger King's portrayals of animal conservation and advocacy are low and only held secondary to the lives of its human characters. The show is a mixture of reality TV, documentary, and entertainment: it does not qualify as a wildlife documentary as there are no “intrinsic connections to non-human animal advocacy”.[22] As a result, conservationists criticised the show’s public influence to end the ownership and abuse of big cats.[23] Although the show portrayed the ownership of tigers and the exploitation of animals and zoos in a glamorous light, it ultimately resulted in a negative perception of exotic pet ownership and unaccredited zoos.[24] However, Tiger King’s emphasis on human characters as well as its narrative, framing, and cinematography choices, may play a factor in reducing the indications of the “Tiger King effect.” Though it may be too soon to observe direct evidence of the effect on the wild cat trade, there are changes relating to legislation, public perception, and media response that indicate movement in a positive direction.

Changes in the wild cat trade after the release of the Tiger King

Progress has been made in the wild cat trade, although it is unclear if they are a result of the Tiger King series. In January 2021, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill that would address cub petting operations, trade and trafficking issues, and conditions for private ownership, was reintroduced after having failed to pass in Congress in 2019.[25] In 2022, the Big Cat Public Safety Act was passed in the Senate with the support of various wildlife organizations including Big Cat Sanctuary, IFAW, and Animal Welfare Institute.[26] In addition, changes in the zoos of the shows’ various owners have occurred since: (1) Jeff Lowe faced the termination of his license due to violations of the Animal Welfare Act, (2) Doc Antle was charged with wildlife trafficking, conspiracy to trafficking, and animal cruelty, (3) Carole Baskin faced relocation of existing tigers to Turpentine Sanctuary.[25][27]

Other Solutions against the Wild Cat Trade

Beside what has been mentioned in the documentary Tiger King, there are several other ways to help reduce the tiger trade.

Legal Actions

Governments must take effective measures to enforce laws against the illegal trade in tiger parts and products, private ownership of tigers as pets, or tiger farms. Countries like Canada have outlawed private ownership of tigers, and only authorized organizations can apply for a license.[28] With the Big Cats Public Safety Act being signed in the United States, law enforcement should take action as soon as possible.

Public Education

Public education campaigns can be effective in raising awareness about the negative impacts of tiger trade and promoting conservation efforts.[29] Reducing demand for tiger products is critical to ending the trade. Therefore, establishing educational programs at local zoos can satisfy the curiosity of the public and provide safe and sustainable interactions between humans and wild animals.

Habitat Protection

Protecting the habitats of tigers and their prey is essential to conserving tiger populations.[30] This nature-based solution involves measures such as creating protected areas and restoring degraded habitats.[30]

Public Funding

Supporting conservation organizations and initiatives that work to protect tigers and their habitats can help to ensure the survival of these magnificent animals.[31]

From films to tattoos, the cultural significance of tigers is a topic of public fascination and reverence. As featured in the movie The Hangover, the tiger is an object of fear and respect as a pet of Mike Tyson. It also highlights the tiger as a status symbol of the rich and famous, a rarity to be collected and tamed. In any case, captive U.S. tigers outnumber the global population of wild tigers, a consequent fact of private big cat ownership and forced breeding. Combined with a lack of enforcement, legal regulations, and lack of public awareness, tigers continue to persist as a form of human status symbols rather than autonomous, intrinsic majestic creatures.


  1. 1.0 1.1 (2022, December 20). "H.R.263 - Big Cat Public Safety Act". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Nikki, Bennett (2021). [10.31165/nk.2021.142.642. "The Potential for a "Tiger King Effect": Analysis of Public and Media Response to the Netflix Series Tiger King"] Check |url= value (help). Networking Knowledge Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network. 12: 124–146 – via MeCCSA.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020, July 9). "World Wildlife Crime Report - Trafficking in Protected Areas" (PDF). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. Khutor, Rosa (2018, October). "ASIAN BIG CATS (FELIDAE SPP.): REPORT OF THE SECRETARIAT" (PDF). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. World Wildlife Fund (2023). "Shutting Down Tiger Farms".
  6. Khanwilkar, Sarika; Sosnowski, Monique; Guynup, Sharon (2022, January 04). "Patterns of illegal and legal tiger parts entering the United States over a decade (2003–2012)". Conservation Science and Practice. 4 (3). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. Seidensticker, J., & McDougal, C. (1993). Tiger predatory behaviour, ecology and conservation. In Symposium of the Zoological Society of London.
  8. National Geographic Society. (2022, July 19). Role of Keystone Species in an Ecosystem | National Geographic Society (J. Evers & Emdash Editing, Eds.).; National Geographic Society.
  9. "Where do tigers live? And other tiger facts." World Wildlife Fund.
  10. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
  11. Bush, E. R., Baker, S. E., & MacDonald, D. W. (2014). Global trade in exotic pets 2006-2012. Conservation Biology, 28(3), 663-676.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 deFrance, S.D. "Zooarchaeology in Complex Societies: Political Economy, Status, and Ideology". J Archaeol Res 17. 17: 105–168.
  13. Kirch, O'Day (2003). "New archaeological insights into food and status: a case study from pre-contact Hawaii". World Archaeology. 34(3): 484–497.
  14. "Cruelty rampant at top zoos according to new research". World Animal Protection. Archived from the original on |archive-url= requires |archive-date= (help). Retrieved 14th April 2023. |first= missing |last= (help); Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  15. Fischer, CP; Romero (2019 December). "Chronic captivity stress in wild animals is highly species-specific". Conserv Physiol. 7: 1 – via PMID: 31824674; PMCID: PMC689246. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. Toland; Bando; Hamers; Cadenas; Laidlaw (2020 December). "Turning Negatives into Positives for Pet Trading and Keeping: A Review of Positive Lists". Animals (Basel). 10: 12 – via PMID: 33322002; PMCID: PMC7763047. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  17. 17.0 17.1 Ege, Howe; McFadden; Schloenhardt (2020). "The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora: improving the prospects for preserving our biological heritage. A critical perspective". Criminalisation of Wildlife Trafficking: 170–200.
  18. USDA (2020). "How would one obtain a permit to be able to own and raise an exotic or wild animal?". United States Department of Agriculture.
  19. Waite, Catrina J. (2021). "Starting from Scratch: A Study in Claws and Clauses in Cat Declaw Legislation". 69 Drake L.: 675.
  20. Doody, Sean J.; Reid, Joan A.; Bilali, Klejdis; Diaz, Jennifer; Mattheus, Nichole (2021, September 13). "In the post-COVID-19 era, is the illegal wildlife trade the most serious form of trafficking?". Crime Science. 10 (1). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  21. 21.0 21.1 World Economic Forum (2022, July 6). "What are zoonotic diseases - and how dangerous are they?". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  22. Alonso-Recarte, Claudia (2022). "Tiger King and the Exegesis of COVID-19 Media Coverage of Nonhuman Animals". Journalism and Media. 3: 99–114.
  23. Nuwer, Rachel (2021, November 17). "Why 'Tiger King' Is Not 'Blackfish' for Big Cats". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  24. O'Connor, Victoria L.; Vonk, Jennifer (2023, February). ""A (tiger) king's ransom": Dark personality features predict endorsement of exotic animal exploitation". Personality and Individual Differences. 202. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  25. 25.0 25.1 Grant, Brianna (2021). "Big Cat Public Safety Act Reintroduced in House". Earth Island.
  26. "Senate approves the Big Cat Public Safety Act in monumental win for captive wildlife". 2022.
  27. Baskins, Carole Robbins (2023). "Combining of Big Cat Rescue's Cat Population with Turpentine Creek's. big cat rescue". Big Cat Rescue.
  28. Government of BC. (n.d.). Controlled Alien Species - Province of British Columbia. Retrieved April 15, 2023, from
  29. Vishwajit, S. (2019, September 16). Why Should We be Teaching Wildlife Conservation in Schools? Ranthambore National Park.
  30. 30.0 30.1 WWF. (n.d.). Nature Based Climate Solutions. World Wildlife Fund. WWF.CA.
  31. World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Ways to support WWF. Retrieved from

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Course:CONS200. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.