You’ve been watching Netflix’s Tiger King documentary—that dizzying chronicle of America’s cruel breeders of big cats—and have no doubt marveled at the tragedy of its human characters. These are, after all, truly busted people like Joe Exotic, who in the series wears leather fringe unironically and breeds tigers under deplorable conditions at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, where visitors can hold baby tigers for a fee (of course) and take selfies (also of course).
The interpersonal drama between the human characters of Tiger King—including an attempted murder for hire—can distract from the real tiger tragedy: These magnificent creatures will never know anything but a cage. Tigers in the wild may roam a range of 100 square miles. But animal advocates say that in non-accredited roadside zoos, they may be packed together in tiny cages and forced to fight over food. (Both were true in the case of Joe Exotic’s animal park, where the Netflix series shows the tigers being fed expired meat from Walmart.)
Breeders of big cats sometimes say they’re doing it so populations can be maintained in captivity, in case the animals go extinct in the wild. But animal advocates say this is the reddest of red herrings. “The tigers that they’re producing are worthless for the wild,” says John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program director for Panthera, the wild cat conservation organization, speaking of roadside zoos. “They’re no more useful to tigers in the wild than domestic dogs are to wolves in the wild.”
There are two main problems to consider when it comes to captive tiger breeding: genetics and behavior. A tiger in the wild has choices when finding a mate, but tigers kept in captivity are at risk of inbreeding. That’s not a problem in an accredited zoo, which is actually required to carefully breed its animals. But in roadside parks, closely-related individuals are bred together, generation after generation. All white tigers in captivity, for example, come from a single individual taken from India decades ago.
Breeders might be muddying the genetic pool even further by mixing different subspecies: for instance, the Siberian tiger, the Indochinese tiger, and the Malay tiger. “They have different adaptations to their unique environments,” says Goodrich of these subspecies. “So you wouldn’t want to take a Siberian tiger, for example, and reintroduce it from the colds of Russia to the hot tropics of India or Sumatra.” And you certainly wouldn’t want to create an admixture of these species in a highly-inbred individual and then set it free: Even if it managed to survive, it might mate with a wild tiger and corrupt the gene pool.
This also means that every descendant of a poorly bred captive tiger will itself be doomed to a life of captivity. You can’t just flip a switch and reverse decades of inbreeding. Making matters worse, breeders have created hybrid species, like the liger, a mix between a tiger and a lion. “That makes these sort of genetic mutts that are not of any use whatsoever in conservation,” Goodrich says.
They’ve also created a behavioral mess. Joe Exotic’s tigers were bred for the explicit purpose of interacting with humans and were socialized to be around people; visitors to the park held them, fed them, played with them. That teaches the tiger to associate people with food and play. Release one of these animals into the wild and it won’t be able to hunt for itself. Even worse, it will be attracted to people—a 400-pound missile of teeth and claws that can easily kill a human, even by accident.
We sat down with Goodrich to talk about all this and more in the video above, including simple tricks you can use to tell the difference between a roadside compound of death and a proper zoo where the keepers work with the tigers’ best interests in mind.
Editor’s note: Matt Simon is the creator of the WIRED video series Absurd Creatures, which became the basis for the new Netflix series Absurd Planet.
More Great WIRED Stories