Damai, a female Sumatran tiger who lives at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Damai, a female Sumatran tiger who lives at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

With more than 34 million viewers in the first 10 days of its release, Netflix’s “Tiger King” is one of the most popular series in recent memory.

But critics and conservationists have lamented its inattention to the plight of the tigers themselves, and the little that has been done to protect them. It’s legal in most states for a private citizen to buy a tiger, and few laws and authorities monitor how they’re bred, sold and treated.

But there is also hope that “Tiger King” may prompt more people to learn about these grand cats, and the efforts of scientists — including those at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo — to conserve them.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Karin Brulliard Animal beat reporter, The Washington Post; @KarinBrulliard
  • Craig Saffoe Big Cats Curator; National Zoo; @NationalZoo
  • Brittany Peet Director, Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA Foundation; @Brittany_K_Peet


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. More than 34 million people have watched the Netflix series "Tiger King." The docudrama stars a cast of outlandish characters who sell the opportunity to pet and take pictures with tigers and other big cats. Viewers may be surprised to learn that much of what they see in the series is legal. In many states, a private citizen can own a tiger. Critics of the show worry that some viewers will want to emulate the self-named Joe Exotic and try to acquire a big cat of their own, or at least try to cuddle with one.

  • 12:32:32

    KOJO NNAMDIToday we're talking about what gets relatively little attention in "Tiger King," the tigers themselves. And what can be done to help this endangered species? And, fair warning, we're also going to talk about some of the twists and turns of the series, so be prepared for some spoilers. Joining us now is Brittany Peet, director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at the PETA Foundation. Brittany Peet, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:54

    BRITTANY PEETThank you. Glad to be here.

  • 12:32:55

    NNAMDIBrittany, you actually appear in the "Tiger King" series. For those who have not seen it what is your part in the documentary?

  • 12:33:03

    PEETWell, I have worked for about a decade to help end the industry and to take down abusers like Joe Exotic. And I met Joe in December of 2017, and ultimately worked with him to rescue around 50 animals from his roadside zoo. And I also testified at his trial, and know all of the other players. So, I'm sort of a part of this world, but, you know, working to bring it all down.

  • 12:33:38

    NNAMDIYou have some serious concerns over what people will take away from this series. What are they?

  • 12:33:43

    PEETWell, "Tiger King" tells us that criminals like Joe Exotic are either caricatures to laugh at or antiheroes to be celebrated. And that Carole Baskin, who was hunted and terrorized for years by Joe Exotic, and who is working to clean up the mess that these men created, is a villain. And then, of course, the tigers themselves are just tertiary characters. There's no real examination of what their lives are like in the hands of these abusers.

  • 12:34:15

    PEETBut I do have to say, at the same time, the series is sparking conversations like this one that do educate the public about the cruelty inherent in the tiger cub petting industry. So, in that way, I do think it has some value.

  • 12:34:29

    NNAMDIYou later worked with Joe Exotic. You personally met him at his zoo, even though he had threatened to harm anyone from PETA who came onto his property. How did that work out? How did he treat you?

  • 12:34:40

    PEETYou know, it's interesting. We came onto his property with about a dozen armed guards, because of the threats that he'd made against us. But, from the beginning, he treated me like I was his best friend. He was joking around. He was spilling the beans about others in the industry, despite the fact that I had worked to close him down for about a decade.

  • 12:35:04

    PEETThat first day that I met him, he was telling me about how these tiger cub petting operators will forge federal paperwork to make it seem like tiger cubs that they use for these petting encounters never existed. So, that way they can just kill them after the few months that they're able to use them for these encounters. Because, at that point, they become a financial liability. He told me that day that Doc Antle, who's featured in "Tiger King," some of the cubs that age out of his cub-petting program, that he puts them in a gas chamber and kills them, and that he has a crematorium at his zoo, at his roadside zoo and that he incinerates their bodies after he kills them. And so it's as if these cubs just never existed.

  • 12:35:54

    NNAMDI"Tiger King" centers around a conflict between Joe Exotic, who ran the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Having spent time in both of these places, Brittany, both of which keep big cats, what's the difference between them?

  • 12:36:11

    PEETThe primary difference between a roadside zoo like G.W. Exotic and a true sanctuary like Big Cat Rescue are that true sanctuaries never breed. They don't buy or sell animals. And they provide animals with lifetime homes, and they never, ever allow members of the public to engage in direct contact with animals.

  • 12:36:32

    PEETI should also say that the enclosures at Big Cat Rescue are completely misrepresented in "Tiger King." You only see a small alcove where the animals eat and drink. You don't see the expansive enclosures where the animals run and play and are provided with enrichment Whereas, at G.W. Exotic -- and from the moment that I opened the car door, you're overwhelmed by the stench of urine, because there are hundreds of big cats being held in 10 by 10 enclosures on dirt floors where urine has absorbed over the years. And it's all that you can smell.

  • 12:37:13

    PEETThey have one or two enclosures that are somewhat larger, but what the "Tiger King" series doesn't explore is, well, where are those other 200 tigers at the park? And they're held in these tiny, prison-like cell blocks.

  • 12:37:29

    NNAMDIJoe Exotic was convicted on two counts of murder for hire, and his intended target was the aforementioned Carole Baskin. Do you think she is treated fairly in the series?

  • 12:37:42

    PEETAbsolutely not. Carole lived in fear for years as a result of Joe Exotic, as the series explained. She walked out to her mailbox one day, and it was filled with snakes. He terrorized her, he hunted her. He tried to hire two different people to murder her. Yet, she's portrayed as a villain in the series. And, unfortunately, that's the way that a lot of people who've watched the series, that's the message that they've come away with. And it couldn't be further from the truth. Carole is part of the solution. She is a tireless advocate for captive big cats in the United States. And she provides excellent, state-of-the-art care to the big cats that she has at her excellent sanctuary.

  • 12:38:30

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Craig Saffoe, the big cats curator at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Craig Saffoe, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:38:38

    CRAIG SAFFOEThank you for having me.

  • 12:38:39

    NNAMDIYou are the curator of big cats at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, as I said. Why is the zoo's work with these animals important?

  • 12:38:48

    SAFFOESo, the zoo works very hard to conserve tigers. We do it in a little bit different way than sanctuaries do. Both areas have their place and do really, really well. We work to create what we think of as a safety net for very specific subspecies of tigers in the wild. Specifically, in North America, we work with Malayan tigers, amur tigers -- most people know them as Siberians -- and Sumatran tigers.

  • 12:39:18

    SAFFOEAnd as a for instance, Sumatran tigers are critically endangered. There are only 200 to 300 of those cats left in the wild. And if something were to happen to that wild population, the zoo population, having been bred and genetically maintained successfully, would provide a safety net for that species to potentially go back to the wild, if something were to happen.

  • 12:39:43

    NNAMDIHow is that different from the type of tigers bred by Joe Exotic and other roadside zoos?

  • 12:39:50

    SAFFOEGood question. So, the type of tigers that are featured in the program are what we, in the zoo industry, call generic tigers. That means that we cannot tell the genetic lineage of those animals. And so they don't really have a conservation value. Of course, every individual animal has a value. That's without question.

  • 12:40:12

    SAFFOEAnd that is where facilities like Big Cat Rescue and others come into play, in that they can help take care of those animals that zoos are not taking care of. Because we have to focus, in order to focus on species survival -- and zoos like the Smithsonian's National Zoo are very concerned with saving species. And, of course, in the process of saving species, we take care of the individuals that we have. So, if we work to save those species, those generic tigers just take up space and they take up space. And, unfortunately, they take up space for the conservation effort that we're trying to have go forward.

  • 12:40:49

    NNAMDIYou say you saw some things on "Tiger King" that made you cringe. What were they?

  • 12:40:54

    SAFFOEFor me, personally, as a curator of a zoo area, that means that I've managed not just the tiger collection, but I manage the people who work with those animals. And anybody who works with big cats, it's undeniable, anybody who doesn't work with big cats has to be able to recognize that these are large, powerful and dangerous animals. The biggest thing that makes me cringe -- or I lose sleep at night over my staff and me working with those cats and the potential safety risks that we have.

  • 12:41:30

    SAFFOESo, whenever I see something that goes on around these cats that presents a safety challenge for the human involved, that makes me cringe, because that safety challenge not only presents an issue for the person, but also potentially the cat.

  • 12:41:45

    NNAMDIYeah, what makes you cringe makes me curl up in a ball, reach for the remote and try to shut the thing off, but that's a whole other story. You say that as much as you reject the practices of the tiger keeper's profile in the Netflix series, in some ways, you identify with these people. How?

  • 12:42:01

    SAFFOESo, the identifying point comes in that we all have an affinity for big cats. I think -- when I say we all, I almost mean the collective human population. Big cats are a family of animals that just capture the attention of people, whether it's you're in awe of how beautiful they are, whether you're in awe of how powerful they are, or you're empathetic for their plight in the wild. People's attention is just grabbed and held by big cats.

  • 12:42:32

    SAFFOESo, when I see somebody talking about having the affinity for animals and the love for animals, I can certainly identify with that. How you express that love and how you choose to put your energy towards that love is a whole different story.

  • 12:42:51

    NNAMDISince the Netflix series came out, a couple of friends of yours have jokingly referred to you as the Real Tiger King, but that is not a nickname that you approve of. Why?

  • 12:43:02

    SAFFOEBecause, for me, I could not care less if the world knows who Craig Saffoe is. I'm more concerned with the world knowing what's going on with tigers, what the issues are with tigers. The fact that there are six subspecies of tigers and, you know, most people can only tell you about Bengals and Siberians, you know, I'm much more concerned with that. So, I have no desire to be in the limelight. My whole reason for coming on this program was just to talk about conservation and try to help push that message forward. So, that's the real distinction. I have no desire to be a "Tiger King," I'm using air quotes. I would much rather be a tiger advocate.

  • 12:43:47

    NNAMDIHow are the tigers and other big cats faring at the National Zoo these days, when there are no people coming to visit? Are they behaving any differently? Are they going, yes, finally, we're alone? Or are they going, like, what happened to all the people?

  • 12:44:02

    SAFFOEYou know, I think it's a mixed bag. The cats are doing really well. All the animals at the zoo are doing really well. We've got a great, great support system. Everybody at the Smithsonian's National Zoo is still working, whether we're working from home or we're onsite working for the animals. So, we're very fortunate in that respect. The animals themselves have -- it's been a bit of a mixed bag. I've heard from our bird curator that some of the birds are acting a little bit differently. The cats don't seem to really care.

  • 12:44:34

    SAFFOEYou know, if you've got a cat at home, my big message is, cats are cats. You know, they really couldn't care less.

  • 12:44:42

    NNAMDINo, they're snobs.

  • 12:44:43

    SAFFOEExactly. Exactly. And they've certainly earned that right to be those snobs. So, as long as they have the food brought to them and they have their creature comforts, they seem to be doing just fine.

  • 12:44:57

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Karin Brulliard, the animal beat reporter at the Washington Post. Karin Brulliard, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:45:05

    KARIN BRUILLARDThanks for having me.

  • 12:45:06

    NNAMDIYou wrote a blockbuster piece on tiger trafficking and Joe Exotic for the Washington Post last summer, months before the Netflix series was released. What drew you to the topic?

  • 12:45:18

    BRUILLARDWell, as you mentioned, I write about animals for the Washington Post, and really about animals and people and sort of how their lives intersect. And in doing that reporting for several years, I'd heard many times from advocates for big cats and other animals that there exists a very large population of tigers in the United States, that nobody knows how many there are. I was hearing numbers like 5,000 tigers, 10,000 tigers living in basements, living backyards. And this was something I sort of filed away as something very interesting and that I wanted to know more about. And I wondered if we could find out the number.

  • 12:45:58

    BRUILLARDSo, that was sort of the launching point for this project that we embarked on. And anybody who wants to know more about tigers in the United States and where they're coming from and how they're moving around quickly learns about Joe Exotic. So, he became a focus pretty early.

  • 12:46:15

    NNAMDIFor years, there were reports of Joe Exotic abusing tigers and selling them to just about anybody who would pay. Why was the government so slow to go after him?

  • 12:46:25

    BRUILLARDThat's a good question. Brittany might have some thoughts on that. You know, one of the things, as Craig mentioned, most of the tigers in the United States are what are considered generic tigers. You might think of them as mutts. They're not pure-bred tigers. They're not Siberian tigers, Malayan tigers. They are tigers that are the descendants, sometimes many generations, you know, down from, you know, circus tigers that have been bred and traded in these smaller private zoos.

  • 12:46:57

    BRUILLARDAnd for a long time, the federal government -- and I'm referring here to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- didn't consider them to be animals that they concern themselves with, because they weren't viewed as having a conservation value. And that was one thing that sort of facilitated the ability of someone like Joe Exotic to be able to breed a lot and to trade a lot. Because no one was extremely concerned about what was happening to these tigers.

  • 12:47:25

    NNAMDIBrittany, I was just reliably informed that you might have some thoughts on this.

  • 12:47:29

    PEETI have a lot of thoughts on it. There's simply no excuse for the fact that the USDA allowed Joe Exotic to continue to operate for as long as he did. PETA and other organizations conducted undercover investigations of G.W. Exotic, revealing animals being starved, animals being beaten in the face with the butt of a gun, shot in the face with fire extinguishers and hoses. At the time that Joe was arrested, the USDA had four open investigations into horrific animal welfare violations at his facility, yet they continued to allow him to operate year after year.

  • 12:48:12

    PEETAnd despite the fact that he's sitting in prison now, they're continuing to allow Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe and these other abusers who are featured in "Tiger King," they're allowing them to continue to operate, despite their history of animal welfare violations. So, you know, to PETA, the USDA is complicit in Joe Exotic's crimes. And it's something that they need to answer to, and we're hoping that with the increased public scrutiny on the big cat cub petting industry in the wake of "Tiger King," the USDA will finally step up and do its job.

  • 12:48:50

    NNAMDIKarin Brulliard, after the release of "Tiger King," when many people began criticizing it for failing to focus on animal abuse, you had a chance to interview the directors. You asked them what impression they wanted to leave of the practices on display in the series. How did they respond?

  • 12:49:09

    BRUILLARDThey said that they did want to leave the impression that these practices, in the way Joe Exotic and Doc Antle and people in that world interacted with these cats and viewed these cats, was abusive. And they hoped, you know, that that sort of shone through. At the same time, they acknowledged that this wasn't something they sort of dwelled upon.

  • 12:49:33

    BRUILLARDThey didn't spend -- although they said they had interviewed conservationists and animal welfare advocates and activists who are involved in, you know, trying to pass -- get stronger legislation passed, they'd interviewed these people. They ultimately didn't use them in the film, because they didn't want it to be a sort of preachy documentary. They thought it wouldn't be as compelling to the public, but, again, that they hoped, you know, that getting behind the curtain at these places would show people that abusive practices were going on.

  • 12:50:12

    NNAMDIHow commonplace are zoos like Joe Exotics?

  • 12:50:17

    BRUILLARDNot incredible commonplace, in terms of size, at least. There are -- you know, Doc Antle is another -- Doc Antle's facility is another place that has large numbers of tigers, and it breeds tigers. There was another facility before Joe's that went out of business that also was breeding a lot of big cats. But Joe was quite singular in numbers. I mean, he had hundreds and hundreds.

  • 12:50:45

    BRUILLARDThat said, there are lots of small, private zoos that might have half a dozen, a dozen that might source, you know, tiger cubs and other big cat cubs from a place like Joe, possibly from a place like Doc Antle's, and offer cub petting. So, that practice isn't incredibly uncommon. You can find it here and there. And then, of course, as it's mentioned briefly in the series and, you know, the question is what happens to those tigers once they can no longer be petted by the public and used for those sort of photo ops. Because, at that point, they become less lucrative for zoos, and they become more dangerous.

  • 12:51:30

    NNAMDIThough the largest roadside zoos seem to be in the Midwest and West, you can find them in this region, too. Tell us about one in Virginia that you wrote about recently.

  • 12:51:40

    BRUILLARDThere was a zoo in Virginia, in Winchester, called Wilson's Wild Animal Park that had lots of different kinds of animals, including tigers and bears and, you know, livestock and all sorts of animals. That, to my knowledge, did not offer cub petting, but, you know, was a zoo, the kind of zoo you can find in a lot of places that had, you know, was a small and private zoo that you might pass by and say, oh, I'd like to go see those animals.

  • 12:52:12

    BRUILLARDWhat I wrote about there was that, you know, the USDA, for quite a while over the past couple of years, was going there and performing inspections there, tasked with doing animal welfare inspections of public exhibitors like that. Making sure that the animals have what they need, that they're healthy, that they have enclosures of, you know, that are safe and that they have clean water and that they have proper record-keeping, and all kinds of things like that.

  • 12:52:40

    BRUILLARDFor the past couple years, the USDA was going to this zoo and writing inspections that said everything was fine. Virginia state authorities went there last summer and found what they thought was the opposite, found what they considered to be horrible conditions and ended up seizing more than a hundred animals and really shutting the place down.

  • 12:53:04

    NNAMDIWhy, in your opinion, Brittany Peet, did the USDA, in the case of this particular zoo in Virginia, seem to think that it was okay?

  • 12:53:14

    PEETWell, it's an interesting question, because just a few months before the USDA thought it was okay, they said that it wasn't okay. They cited that zoo for failing to provide adequate space to the bears and the tigers. But then, all of a sudden, there was an about-face, and they found that there were no violations at the zoo, despite the fact that the conditions hadn't changed at all.

  • 12:53:41

    PEETAnd then just a few days later is when Virginia authorities went in, confiscated 119 animals and ultimately charged the owner with dozens of counts of cruelty to animals. So, it's just one more example of the USDA shirking their obligation to ensure the humane treatment of animals, and just one more wake-up call for the agency to finally step up and do its job.

  • 12:54:07

    NNAMDIBrittany, when it comes to the trafficking of big cats in the United States, what is PETA's goal?

  • 12:54:13

    PEETWell, PETA's goal is to end the big cat cub petting industry, because that's what's fueling the underground trade in captive tigers, captive big cats, generally. And we're making great progress. We have two federal endangered species lawsuits that we filed. Just a few weeks ago, we won our first case against a roadside zoo in Florida that didn't appear in "Tiger King," because they refused to be on camera.

  • 12:54:41

    PEETSo, we now have the first federal court order that states unequivocally that prematurely separating tiger cubs from their mothers and using those cubs in encounters with the public actually violates the Federal Endangered Species Act. So, now we're going to be able to take that federal court order and use it in our efforts to shut down this industry once and for all.

  • 12:55:04

    NNAMDIAnd, finally, Craig Saffoe, what do you suggest to people who really want to help tigers?

  • 12:55:09

    SAFFOEThe thing that I would recommend for people who are interested in conserving tigers is to visit AZA-accredited zoos. And it's very easy to figure out which zoos are AZA credited. You can just go to AZA.org and find out which ones are credited. That means that that zoo has gone through a very rigorous process and is taking wonderful care of their animals and contributing to conservation.

  • 12:55:35

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Craig Saffoe, Brittany Peet, Karin Brulliard, thank you all for joining us. This segment on the things you don't learn on "Tiger King" was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about the cancel-the-rent movement was produced by Kurt Gardinier.

  • 12:55:50

    NNAMDIWe're taking a break from The Politics Hour tomorrow to bring you special coverage of the Infodemic. That's an epidemic of misinformation spreading about the coronavirus. And we'll hear about ways to counter this torrent of dubious data and outright harmful claims. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. I'll be back with you again on Monday. Until then, thank you for listening. Stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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