Traveling the country in 1866, the showman P.T. Barnum sparred with the founder of the A.S.P.C.A. Having learned of a mauling at a Long Island zoo in 1933, one woman wrote to her newspaper, “it makes one wonder why these roadside ‘zoos’ are allowed.”
Watching Netflix in 2020, a lot of people are wondering the same thing.
That question and many others rose out of the documentary series “Tiger King,” about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, the former owner of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma, now in federal prison for, among other things, trying to hire a hit man to kill an animal-rights activist.
Since the series’ release last month, Joe Exotic, 57, has won over a whole new set of allies against a host of his former associates and enemies, most prominently the activist Carole Baskin. Some are calling for his release from prison, where he is serving a 22-year sentence.
His story has also given new energy to animal-rights activists, who say the documentary chose to sensationalize feuds and missed an opportunity to expose cruelty at roadside zoos.
If you’ve watched the show, or just heard about it, you probably have more than a few questions. Here are answers to some of them.
So, Joe Exotic is in jail now?
In the final episodes of the show, Joe Exotic’s long-running anger at Carole Baskin, the animal-rights activist, curdles into a plot to do violence against her, drawing the attention of the F.B.I.
He was convicted last April on two counts of murder-for-hire and a slew of charges around the animals he kept. He was sentenced in January, but maintained his innocence in a Facebook post and appealed to a higher court. His lawyers declined to comment.
He has also filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $94 million in damages against the Department of the Interior, a prosecutor and others, court documents show. In the suit, filed March 17, he says the case against him included false and perjured testimony, and that he was the victim of discrimination as “an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and crossbreeds.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Oklahoma, which prosecuted the criminal case, declined to comment. One defendant named in the lawsuit is Jeff Lowe, who acquired Joe Exotic’s zoo in Wynnewood, Okla., before the two men had a falling out. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Though Joe Exotic is in a federal prison in Texas, his Facebook page has remained active. In a post last week, he asked for help getting a letter to President Trump asking him to “do the right thing and that is Pardon me or bond me out during my appeal.”
The former zookeeper is also “over the moon” with his new fame, a director of the series, Rebecca Chaiklin, told The Los Angeles Times.
Is the zoo still open?
It was, until this week.
The show’s popularity has hit just as the coronavirus has forced many businesses around the country to shut down.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Mr. Lowe said that, despite the outbreak, “the crowds have been huge since the Netflix show and we have difficulty in controlling that much traffic at one time.”
But on Tuesday, Sheriff Jim Mullett of Garvin County, Okla., said the zoo had closed in compliance with the governor’s order to shut down nonessential business.
What happened to Carole Baskin’s husband?
The investigation into the 1997 disappearance of Don Lewis, Ms. Baskin’s wealthy former husband — one of several mysteries the show dwells upon — never officially closed. Joe Exotic and others suggested Ms. Baskin was involved in her husband’s disappearance, an accusation she has denied.
This week, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, Fla., noting the popularity of the show, asked the public for new leads in Mr. Lewis’s disappearance. He told reporters he had assigned a detective supervisor to handle the leads coming in “because of the phenomenon that’s been on Netflix.”
(Sheriff Chronister watched “Tiger King.” He said the series was “spun” for entertainment but interesting. “Raise your hand if you’re not a Joe Exotic fan, if you’re not rooting for that individual, even knowing that he was a suspect in some of his own dealings,” he said.)
He said that the department was receiving about six calls a day about the case, but so far without any credible leads. “We’ll review a lot of the evidence,” he said. “I can’t even begin to describe how complicated this case was.”
What about Big Cat Rescue?
Big Cat Rescue is a 69-acre nonprofit sanctuary in Florida run by Ms. Baskin, with whom Joe Exotic had frequently feuded and was accused of trying to kill.
In a blog post after “Tiger King” was released, she disputed several of the “misimpressions people have emailed us about,” such as how many visitors are allowed on the sanctuary property (generally fewer than 20 at a time, she said), the size of the animal enclosures (the smallest was “the size of a small house”) and the salaries of their workers (“in the 30s to 60s”).
All sanctuary income “stays in the nonprofit to support its mission,” she wrote.
Ms. Baskin said it was good that “the series appears to have reached an audience that had no clue about roadside zoos,” which are sometimes unlicensed, but she condemned how the filmmakers characterized the disappearance of Mr. Lewis.
Kate Dylewsky, an animal-welfare activist and the senior policy adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute, said she has worked with Ms. Baskin for years trying to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would outlaw the new ownership of big cats like lions and tigers (more on that below). She said Ms. Baskin has a sterling reputation among animal-welfare activists, many of whom have gone on social media to decry how she was portrayed in the documentary.
“The documentary had so many false equivalences between her and the roadside zoo owners,” Ms. Dylewsky said. “People are really appalled with the way she has been treated lately.”
In the blog post, Ms. Baskin said they participated in the making of the Netflix series because the directors had said they would expose abuses at roadside zoos.
“The series not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” Ms. Baskin wrote. She said that it drew on “lies and innuendos from people who are not credible” in its presentation of her husband’s disappearance.
Bhagavan Antle, another licensed wildlife owner featured in the series, called it “sensationalized entertainment.” In a Facebook post last week, he said his Myrtle Beach Safari “adheres to all U.S.D.A. guidelines, and our animals are treated with the utmost care.” He said that his staff was “very disappointed that our facility was mentioned.”
What, if anything, about keeping tigers is legal?
Some states outright ban the private ownership of big cats by anyone who is not federally licensed to keep them, while other states have looser restrictions or none at all. Animal-rights groups say this patchwork of regulations fails to protect wild animals and threatens public safety.
Often, people with little to no zookeeping experience buy lion or tiger cubs that become difficult to manage as they grow. Animal-welfare advocates often point to the 2011 case of an Ohio man who released dozens of animals he had been keeping, including Bengal tigers, grizzly bears and lions. The police killed the animals, some of which got as far as a state highway.
Roadside zoos are problematic because they breed big cats for profit, said Ms. Dylewsky of the Animal Welfare Institute.
The cubs are taken from their mothers, often at birth, and paraded before tourists for petting, she said. Many of them are abused by their handlers, Ms. Dylewsky said.
“These cubs are wild animals,” she added. “They’re treated like props and objects instead of like animals.”
And when they get older, they can become a burden to their owners, said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting organization.
“They’re then pawned off to somewhere where they receive no or inadequate care,” he said.
Owners of animals that are exhibited to the public must be licensed under the Animal Welfare Act, which is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Licensed owners must make sure animals have adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care, and are protected from extreme temperatures.
But exhibitors are still able to breed, transfer cats across state lines and allow the public to stroke tiger cubs and pose with lions, the kind of contact shown in “Tiger King,” Mr. Ashe said.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would make all that illegal and outlaw new ownership of big cats like tigers, lions, cheetahs or any hybrid of such species.
Only accredited zoos and facilities would be allowed to breed big cats under the law, said Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois, who introduced the most recent version of the bill.
“Bottom line, this is about animal welfare and public safety,” he said. “If a documentary shines any light on this and puts any oomph on getting this passed then great.”