A zoologist's view of Tiger King: a crass exposé that could do some good

Jules Howard

The “man with questionable fashion sense inflicts abuse on cats” category of true-crime TV has a new monarch: the Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic. This seven-part true-crime doc is a smash hit for Netflix, and that’s no surprise – it’s arresting, gripping, horrifying and jaw-dropping in equal measure. To parrot Mrs Merton: oh Netflix, what drew you to the story of the polyamorous, power-ballad singing, gun-toting, murderous tiger-collector Joe Exotic?

Related: Murder, madness and tigers: behind the year's wildest Netflix series

Yet, many fans of big cat conservation had hoped that Tiger King might have been something else. All the talk was that this would do for the US’s captive tigers what Blackfish did for captive marine mammals. Finally, an exposé on those that keep tigers and other big cats as pets; those that breed said cats for profit; those that keep big cats in totally ill-suited environments. Appetites were whetted. So, were our expectations met?

The good news is that, in its early stages, the show did plenty right, exploring the swap-meets and the “collector-mania” that many in this industry seem to possess. And it didn’t hold back in exposing the suffering of these poor animals. Many of Joe Exotic’s 200 or more tigers are shown pacing their cells. They pant. They stare idly. Incredibly, it seems they occasionally live off handouts from a local Walmart. This was heartbreaking to see.

But there were problems with the show, too. There was a distinct lack of independent commentators on the tigers and why Exotic’s behaviour was, to say the least, reprehensible. The show lacked someone to explain that “good” zoos have standards for housing captive tigers (here are the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s guidelines, for instance); nobody to explain why tigers being forced to give birth to cubs in tiger mills (sometimes producing litters three times a year) to provide for the public’s appetite for tiger cubs is deeply unnatural, disturbing and unethical. At one point, Tim Stark, the owner of a roadside zoo, Wildlife in Need, argues that breeding captive tigers in the US is just what we need to do to get them off the endangered list. This point, though grossly misleading, goes largely unchallenged.

The truth is that not a single one of these captive tigers would be suitable for release back into the wild. Their genetic history is now marked by enforced inbreeding over many generations. The white tigers (featured throughout all seven episodes) are a case-in-point: this genetic strain is prone to strabismus, a condition that causes tigers to cross their eyes when stressed. White tigers are also more prone to club foot, kidney problems or a twisted neck. It would be catastrophic were they ever to breed with wild tigers.

In the early stages, the show does lean on one expert for these sorts of scientific insights. That expert is Joe Exotic’s adversary Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue. The trouble with Carole is that, by episode three, she is well and truly thrown under the bus for the sake of story, with the introduction of the controversy over her missing millionaire husband.

And the show, rather conveniently, gives a free pass to the source of this vile industry’s funds: the people that are happy to pay $10 to have their photo taken with tiger cubs or who visit Joe Exotic’s park and roadside zoos like it. These punters (some of whom no doubt are Netflix subscribers) generate enormous revenue for these enterprises, sometimes more than $1m each year. Educate them, one could argue, and you cut off an entire income stream for Joe Exotic and people like him. Yet there they are, in the background of many shots throughout Tiger King, grinning for their tiger cub photo shoots or pootling around gift shops, inadvertently (and one hopes, unknowingly) funding the continued abuse of tigers at the hands of Joe Exotic and his cronies.

If you were hoping for Blackfish, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, this an entirely different – perhaps more watchable – beast. Netflix’s most masterful trick is that, with this show, it has packaged up an important animal welfare issue into a true-crime maelstrom, machine-tooled to keep us coming back for the next episode. For this reason alone, millions upon millions of people around the world are waking up to this abuse of big cats in a way that a serious, more thorough documentary simply wouldn’t have been able to achieve.

Anyone interested in how to engage the masses in the ethical treatment of animals should watch and learn. This is conservation messaging, by stealth. Sneaking up from the long grass. Watching and waiting to deliver its blows at just the right time. Like the tigers then, just wild and free. I can only applaud from my living room, and implore you to tell as many people as you can to watch.