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Joe Exotic, Tiger King
Via IMDb

Tiger King series inspires celebrities to back big cat petition in congress

Iggy Pop, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rooney Mara are among the stars urging the government to prohibit the private ownership of wild animals

Netflix’s Tiger King documentary has been the talk of lockdown, inspiring parodies, a drama adaptation, and even beauty looks. Now, a number of celebrities are coming together to urge the government to prohibit the private ownership of big cats, after being shocked by their treatment in the series.

Iggy Pop, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, and more have signed an open letter showing their support for the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which – along with private ownership – bans “direct public contact, and dangerous public interactions with big cats such as cub petting”. The act was first proposed in 2019, but received little traction, until now.

The letter was drafted by Gabriela Cowperthwaite – in partnership with the Animal Legal Defense Fund – the director of 2013’s documentary Blackfish, which investigated the mistreatment of killer whales at Sea World. The letter opens: “Shockingly, there are thousands more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are left in the wild.” 

“Private owners and operations that breed tigers forcefully separate newborn cubs from their mothers – sometimes within minutes of birth – to use them in expensive photo opportunities with tourists,” the letter continues. “Because cubs can only be ‘handled’ for a few months, drugging tigers to be compliant and docile is commonplace. When they get too old and their existence is no longer profitable, they are often irresponsibly sold into the pet trade or killed.”

Joe Exotic, GW Zoo owner and subject of Tiger King, is currently serving four years in prison for killing five tigers (on top of the 18 years he got for hiring a hitman to try and kill his nemesis, Carole Baskin) after he shot each of them in the head to make room for other cats. Exotic was also charged with trafficking tigers and other endangered species, as well as falsifying government documents.

Despite a petition calling for Exotic’s release amassing over 57,000 signatures, many Tiger King viewers were shocked by the mistreatment of animals in the series. In a statement to Variety, Cowperthwaite said: “Documentaries can be powerful forces for change, sometimes through a call to action, and other times simply by telling a story that entertains, creating a window into a world viewers weren’t previously aware of. But at some point, there is a pivot and the passion of their millions of viewers lands somewhere useful.”

Stephen Wells, the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, added: “It’s important for us to move beyond the characters in the series and use this moment to put real pressure on our elected officials so meaningful change can be made to protect lions and tigers, and other big cats, many of whom are members of endangered species.”

“Tigers and other big cats are apex predators who have complex physical and psychological needs and desires,” the open letter continued. “Depriving them of expressing their natural instincts is inhumane. Keeping big cats in captivity in private homes or small cages creates an enormous public safety threat should these animals ever get loose.”

Other celebrities who have signed the letter include Jenny Slate, Glenn Close, Justin Theroux, Kim Basinger, Steve Aoki, Olivia Wilde, Ruby Rose, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Walken, Alan Cumming, and more.

Tiger King tells the story of Exotic’s rise from big cat lover to bonafide local celebrity (and 2016 presidential candidate) and ends with his ultimate fall, as he’s thrown into jail for exploiting the animals under his care and attempting to kill Baskin – a big cat rights activist. 

Exotic was also the subject of a 2011 Louis Theroux documentary, titled America’s Most Dangerous Pets. In an interview with Dazed this week (April 27), the filmmaker described Exotic as “one of those people who you can’t help warming to in spite of his eccentricities”, but added: “He has been found guilty of animal abuse; I wouldn’t try and excuse any of that. I think Tiger King was enormously entertaining, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I could also recognise that was not a good place for tigers. They should not be in small cages in Oklahoma, they should be out in the wild.”