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Tiger King: For-Profit Zoos

Multiple people asked how I felt about the Tiger King documentary. My answer isn’t simple. Was the Tiger King entertaining TV? Absolutely. A documentarian couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic storyline. Concerning character, every person was more outrageous than the last. But when I viewed it the second time, when the shock value lost its impact, I felt incredibly sorry for all those tigers.

The Tiger King also reminded me of an experience I’d rather forget, an experience that proved big cats aren’t the only wild animals exploited for money. Four years ago, Mason surprised me with a trip to a wolf sanctuary outside Denver, CO. The sanctuary boasted it rescued animals who had been hurt or abandoned in nature and even some from movie sets. They used their wolves for educational purposes since they could never be reintegrated in the wild.

Mason had paid extra so we could sit with the wolves, which also meant a private tour around the premises. He justified the exorbitant cost with an “it’s going to a good cause” reasoning. I didn’t argue because I agreed. Besides, I was going to learn all about wolves. Hell, I was about to touch one. Since I consider a wolf my spirit animal, I was beyond excited.

I had butterflies during the whole hour it took us to drive there from our hotel, but that excitement didn’t last long. As soon as we arrived, something felt off kilter. Back then, private zoos weren’t on my radar, so I couldn’t name what felt weird but something wasn’t right.

For one thing, we never met the woman who ran the sanctuary. She lived on the premises in a giant Swiss-chalet house that looked more like a ski lodge than a home. I remember wondering if she was independently wealthy or was rescuing wolves really that lucrative?

Two women in their early twenties gave us the tour. They were both volunteers and absurdly attractive, like six-feet tall and willowy with perfect bone structure. Our tour lasted thirty minutes, and our guides didn’t offer a single tidbit of knowledge about the wolves. Finally, I started asking questions. I asked a dozen before I realized they didn’t know the answers. They didn’t know about size, diet, lifespan, shedding, howling, mating, or hunting habits.

They did answer one question though. When I asked where they found the wolves, they said breeders in Idaho. They explained wolves can only be around people if they are raised that way. They rescued two of the eighteen animals on the premises. And yes, one had appeared as an extra in a movie but they didn’t know which flick or when. The sanctuary had purchased the rest. I wanted to leave from that moment forward. I felt dirty, dirty about everything from traveling all that way to paying them so that we could touch a wolf.

And we did touch a wolf. We touched three. On the surface, I had no reason to feel bad. The wolves acted friendly, happy to sit while I stroked their enormous paws. They lived in decent enclosures, not big enough but not claustrophobic either. Their coats and weight even looked healthy.

But a fog of guilt hung around me the whole time I sat next to those huge, beautiful animals. I couldn’t forget about the fact that they would never be free. They would never know the feeling of running wide open across a grassy field. Instead, they’d spend their lives behind bars so people like us could touch them.

I didn’t share my feelings until we left Colorado. When I did, the disappointment on Mason’s face would have explained why I waited so long to tell him. He had tried so hard to surprise me with an once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I kissed him, thanked him for his good intentions.  We promised we’d never pay to see a wild animal again, unless it’s in their backyard and not ours.

Four years later, we watched the Tiger King, and I realized that sanctuary was just like Exotic Joe’s zoo, only instead of exploiting big cats they were exploiting wolves. When I think about our experience in Denver, I can’t help but consider the ethical line between exploiting animals for profit versus using them to raise money for good work. And I’m not the only one thinking about it.

Animal lovers across the globe are having this same conversation, and I’m sure they had it long before they met Exotic Joe or Carol Baskin. Most recently, I heard it in Costa Rica when I was volunteering for a sea turtle conservancy group. The biologists and management were debating catching a turtle for a fundraising event.

The biologists didn’t want to cause undue stress on the turtle, but management knew without funds nobody gets to save them. The ethical line between exploitation and good work often blurs, even for the most reputable organizations, and and sometimes that ambiguous zone is necessary. It’s necessary because it allows good work to continue.

That clearly wasn’t the case at Joe Exotic’s or at the wolf sanctuary. There was no ambiguity about their motives. They kept wild animals in cages for money. Until we stop paying to see these animals at for-profit zoos, they will continue to exist.

One of my favorite film critics said by the time she finished watching the Tiger King, she wanted everybody to get eaten by a tiger. I feel the same way about that wolf sanctuary.