Big cat trafficking. Drugs. Bigamy. Dysfunction. Murder. And those are just a few of the themes on display in Netflix’s wildly popular docutainment series Tiger King. For Joe Exotic (also known as Joe Maldonado-Passage and Joe Schreibvogel), the fame-seeking proprietor of a road-side zoo, his menagerie of exotic animals is simply the backdrop to his larger-than-life persona as a gun-toting polygamist with a mullet and control issues. (Viewers should not be surprised that he ran for Governor of Oklahoma and President of the United States.) His questionable behavior, however, has caught up with him. Joe Exotic is currently serving a 22-year jail sentence for hiring someone to kill his nemesis, Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue.
The series leaves the viewer with many perplexing questions. Why start a roadside zoo if you’re reportedly afraid of big cats? Why would you hire a hitman? Why take your beef with your archenemy public?
But there’s a deeper question lurking among the zoo’s dirty cages and sketchy conduct: WHY do people choose to own wild animals? To us, this is one of the most interesting psychological aspects of this series because it’s connected to some of our deepest concerns as human beings: our worth.
Let’s dig deeper.
After watching people like Joe Exotic, it’s not hard to imagine why people would want to “own” such magnificent wild beasts:
They want the attention.
They want to feel needed; the animals depend upon them for food and water, thus creating a weirdly co-dependent relationship.
Owning exotic animals is novel. How many people can say they have a liger (a cross between a male lion and female tiger)?
There’s danger and excitement associated with possessing something that can tear you to shreds.
Rebellion – wild animal ownership is frowned upon by most, and therefore attractive to some.
These exotics act as a barrier to keep outsiders from getting too close emotionally and physically.
Some think that if they can control these beasts, they must be powerful.
It’s a sign of status.
They want to make money off these creatures through petting fees, breeding and trafficking, and luring visitors to these roadside zoos.
They have a need for affirmation of their self-worth. If you don’t have an accurate understanding of your worth, then you are prone to dominate others, or treat other living things with disrespect. In fact, all of the above reasons in some way relate to a person’s idea of worth.
More on that shortly.
But first, there’s a ton of reasons why it’s a bad idea to own wild animals, particularly megafauna such as tigers and lions, to meet the above-mentioned needs:
⁕ Wild animals are unpredictable. People think that an animal they’ve raised from birth would never turn on them. This is a fantasy, likely fueled by a person’s desire for unconditional love. One man imagined a special relationship with his hippo, which ultimately devoured him. "Humphrey's like a son to me, he's just like a human," he told a reporter before the fatal encounter. “There's a relationship between me and Humphrey and that's what some people don't understand."
Fans of Tiger King might remember a scene where Joe Exotic finds himself trapped in a cage and a Liger attacks his foot. Joe is visibly upset and embarrassed (perhaps because he was in a situation where he wasn’t in control?). He blamed other people: someone must have done put something on his shoe to cause the Liger to act like that. He didn’t say “wild animals are unpredictable.” In fact, he ascribed bad motives to the Liger by repeatedly referring to her as "B- - - - -."
This woman told a neighbor that her pack of wolves “gave her unqualified love.” They turned on her and killed her. There are hundreds of incidents that show the naivete of thinking that wild animals love you so much that they would never attack you. These animals are dangerous by nature, and those who forget that fact risk harm and increase the chances of hurting others, especially where the profit motive overrides safety concerns. These risks are high no matter the type of wild animal, including a pet bear, chimpanzee, deer, or mountain lion.
These incidents usually result in an injured or dead human, and always a dead animal. When animals attack humans they are euthanized, even though they simply acted according to their nature. In Ohio, forty-nine magnificent exotic animals, presumably including the big cats, giraffes, wolves, bears and other animals that were known to be on the private property, were shot in an attempt to protect the public after the suicide of the property owner.
⁕ Wild animals need care beyond what the average person can provide. Many people do not understand what a balanced diet includes for a person, let alone a wild animal. Moreover, an exotic animal’s veterinary needs are specialized.
⁕ Wild animals are often trafficked or sold through unscrupulous dealers who do not have their welfare in mind. These dealers aren’t thinking about genetic diversity (as a licensed Zoo might by keeping stud records and participating in countrywide captive breeding programs) or promoting desirable health outcomes for the animal. These people are in business to make a profit.
⁕ Wild animals are not meant to be restricted to a cage or a small plot of land. Just like people, their mental health is related to their activity. The need enrichment activities if they are caged, and that doesn’t include being constantly prodded by humans to perform.
⁕ Increasingly, it’s not legal. Ohio, for example, has outlawed the ownership of wild animals. Other states may follow suit in the wake of Tiger King and the atrocities it’s highlighted.
⁕ It’s not ethical to keep megafauna in captivity. There is a growing recognition that animals should have the right to live according to their nature and roam free in their natural habitat. Tigers should hunt. Elephants should migrate. Chimpanzees should explore. The source of these “rights” may be hard to pinpoint, but they stem from a recognition that wild creatures are sentient beings who exist outside of mankind’s use for them. They have independent worth, value, and interests.
There’s one more reason why we should consider why we should or shouldn’t own wild animals. And that has to do with the psychology of why people do it in the first place.
We alluded above to the fact that people often own wild animals to affirm their self-worth.
But owning wild animals is never going to satisfy that need.
That’s because our worth is not found in the amount of money we possess, the people we overrun, or the number and ferocity of the animals we control.
Our worth comes from the fact that God created us in His image (Gen. 1:26), loved us even in our dysfunction (Romans 5:8), and sent a perfect savior to reconcile us back to Him when that relationship became fractured (John 3:16). Our worth is found in God alone. We are worthy because of Him. We are loved by Him, independent of anything we’ve done to earn it. And outside of knowing Him and His nature, nothing else will satisfy our feelings of unworthiness or lack of worth -- not owning exotic animals or anything else.
Once we understand this fundamental concept, we can live as people who understand the source of our worth and “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col. 3:12). Those qualities are lacking when we are constantly seeking to dominate other things or creatures to affirm our worth.
Perhaps that’s what the Tiger King problem best illustrates.