In the thick of a global pandemic, millions have been finding distraction in the new Netflix series Tiger King. The documentary series follows the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic and the trade that saw endangered species as money-making opportunities. The shocking scenes hooked viewers and quickly sent the show into viral territory, ranking as the most popular show on the online streaming platform for four weeks in a row. But what the show represents goes far deeper than a break from depressing Covid-19 headlines – it is a look into the dangerous underworld that blatantly disrespects and exploits animals and nature. In fact, it centres on the same problem that brought the world to the standstill we are currently facing today.
It is disturbing that during Covid-19, the controversial series Tiger King became a blockbuster, an online sensation. People were gripped with the true crime storyline – the tale of Joe Exotic and the industry that circulates and exploits wild cats as if they were possessions. While the suffering of the captive animals were relegated to the background, viewers were immersed in the series that put at the forefront men in a world that seemed so abstract, so far away and perfect for mindless entertainment whilst being stuck at home.
What the popularity of Tiger King uncovers is far greater than our obsession with the story of Joe Exotic. We have blatantly ignored the dark truth of the series – that for too long, humans have been putting profit, fame and power over the welfare of wild species and nature. But Joe Exotic was not alone – the entire illegal animal trade, motivated by humanity’s desire to eat, capture and control animals, spans supply chains across the world.
And the consequences of humanity’s attitude to animals and nature has now come back to haunt us, endangering not just animals’ health, but our own.
Scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and many other researchers have warned for decades that anthropogenic deforestation, industrial animal farming, climate change and the illicit global trade of wild animals have all worked to increase public health risks.
All coronaviruses are zoonotic – meaning that these viruses transmit from animals to humans. And our constant tampering with the natural ecosystem, with animals that should have been left alone, has increased the chances that disease outbreaks occur. It seems like the world learnt nothing from SARS, MERS and Ebola, which led to thousands of deaths. Now, the current Covid-19 virus has killed more people than all three of those diseases combined.
And while governments have begun to clamp down on the wildlife trade, which is widely believed to be associated with the current pandemic, many laws around the world continue to allow humans to own a number of species – including big cats that were the topic of Tiger King.
Despite 80 countries agreeing to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international law only protects certain animals. It is still not illegal to own tigers, lions and monkeys in Canada, for instance. In the United States, there are as many as 7,000 tigers that are privately owned – that almost double the estimated 3,800 tigers that are in the wild around the world.
There is some noise that has been generated by the controversial show, however. Recently, celebrity actors Diane Keaton and Maggie Q partnered with animal rights organisation Social Compassion In Legislation (SCIL) to raise awareness and build support for the The Big Cat Public Safety Act, HR1380, a bill that was mentioned in the Netflix series.
If passed, the new law would prohibit the private ownership or commerce of big cats, and make it illegal for regulated exhibitors to allow public contact with the animals.
“Now is the time to end animal cruelty. Exotic Animals that are kept for private use are not only a public health issue but also endanger the lives of first responders,” said Keaton in a statement.
She’s right. To save not only the animals, but ourselves, we need to end cruel animal activities. And it needs to happen all over the world. We require regulations, laws, strict enforcement to clamp down on violations of bans that are in place to protect animals, the planet and people. If we are to prevent another pandemic and live sustainably on earth, we must reflect on humanity’s existence and transform the way we have operated for too long.
Lead image courtesy of Netflix / Tiger King.