In early 2014, Cracked was just beginning to launch its Personal Experiences arm, and I was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed 21 year old intern here. An early assignment of mine was an article pitch about what it was like to take care of exotic animals on American soil. It doesn't take a genius detective or the Spotlight crew to know that it's a super shady industry, but I wanted to start by talking to someone whose operation was above ground to get a feel for what it was like to actually take care of animals like lions and tigers.
The main interview I conducted was with a lady named Carole Baskin, who runs a place called Big Cat Rescue down in Tampa, Florida. If you're really interested, you can watch the interview I'm conducting from my childhood bedroom while on summer vacation from college (peep the baseball wallpaper I got when I was like nine years old), because unbeknownst to me, she recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube.
No harm, no foul on the upload. It's not a super long interview (many of our Personal Experience interviews took hours), and I refuse to watch this video because look at my stupid baby face, but the description of the video indicates she's aware that we didn't run anything based on the interview. That is true. For numerous reasons, not the least of which is that I was a 21 year old intern who didn't have a great grip on this whole "journalism" thing yet, we didn't run an article about exotic animals in the United States, but I sure did want to (I'll get to that in a minute).
I attempted to interview people besides Carole Baskin as well. Of my own accord, about a year or so after the interview with Carole, I toured a place called the Exotic Feline Rescue Center near Terre Haute, Indiana, about a 90 minute drive away from my apartment at the time, and had a chance to speak briefly with owner Joe Taft and a tour guide named Sophie. They follow many of the same safety rules and commit to largely the same mission there as Carole Baskin does, and they'd been interviewed by Vice just the past year.
Meanwhile, our interview coordinator at Cracked attempted to contact someone else for me to talk to -- a gay, gun-toting, mullet-haired tiger breeder out of Oklahoma, and if that description doesn't scream "2013 Cracked," I don't know what does. That guy was Joe Exotic, and through "his people," he declined an interview. Thank God he did, that interview would've gone south in seconds and scared the cat pee out of my fragile little intern brain.
Fast forward to just a couple weeks ago, and YouTube shows me a trailer for a new Netflix series called "Tiger King," and as I watched the personalities this show was trotting out, my jaw hit the f@$%ing floor. It was Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic. I'd been asking Carole questions about caring for cats and stopping the big cat trade, when what I should've been asking was, "Hey, are there people who want to kill you, and what's their problem?"
I binged Tiger King about as fast as I could, and man, is it a hard look at that whole exotic cat trade industry. Carole Baskin was nothing but kind and helpful to me as a dumb little 21 year old intern through that interview and follow-up emails, and I have to say the documentary makes her look like the polar opposite of the woman I talked to. I learned quite a bit from her, and even though there wasn't quite enough content to run a full feature about the subject five or six years ago, I think it's certainly worth briefly going over some of the key things I learned from her here that Tiger King, stunningly, didn't have time for.
Drug dealers love lions and cougars. You can buy them cheap as a cub (like $100) and raise them easily in a house to be guard lions. Mentally, they're a kitten until they're 3-4 years old, and if the DEA shows up, all the drug dealer has to do is just let the lion loose. Once they get too big to use, the cats either get released into the wild (cougars), or the lions are good on the black market. Nikita the lioness, a resident of Big Cat Rescue, was tranquilized during a drug bust in Tennessee, but zoos wouldn't take her because she'd been declawed, and a zoo sent Nikita and three bobcats to BCR.
Nikita isn't the only Drug House Guard Cat that BCR has had, turns out. They also had Reise the Cougar, confiscated from a drug bust in New York. She was an older cat with a lot of pain due to a bad declawing job from the original breeder, but enjoyed the remainder of her life at Big Cat Rescue. In the past, they also had Casper the Cougar, who died in 2004. Casper was terribly abused by his former owners and it took months for him to come to trust that the Big Cat Rescue workers were there to take care of him. Eventually he came to trust a volunteer named Daniel, and became a very well-liked cat at the sanctuary.
This is something that didn't quite dawn on me until I toured EFRC in Indiana, but holy smokes, the people who buy these cats and then later find they can't take care of them cannot name a pet to save their lives. BCR admits on their website that for numerous reasons, they often keep the name that a cat comes with, and try their best to avoid having black cats named "Shadow" or white cats named "Snowball." But hoo boy, do y'all have any idea how many tigers out there are named Simba and Nala? Furthermore, do these people realize that Simba literally means "Lion" in Swahili? Then why would they name a tiger that? Or this hybrid Savannah Cat?
It's just as dumb with other cats getting dumb names. BCR had a black leopard named Bagheera. EFRC has two lions named Elsa, and another tiger named Nala, and a lion named Rafiki. Who names these cats, a 6 year old accepting corporate bribes? There's another lion named "Kitty," too. Just...what?
One of my questions near the beginning of the tour I took at Exotic Feline Rescue Center was if they knew anything about the lineage of the tigers. If we knew if a tiger was a Bengal or an Amur, that information could be really helpful in knowing numbers for conservation purposes. Though EFRC has a strict policy against breeding, simply knowing numbers would be great.
However, the attitude towards tiger breeding in circuses, magic acts, roadside zoos, etc., is that if it's white or orange and has black stripes, then boom, it's a tiger, and the breeders can profit off the animal and the general population's ignorance of animal conservation. This really blows, and it's not helping to preserve tigers in an ethical way.
Tiger King has a couple points where a tiger breeder by the name of Doc Antle attempts to argue that he's the good guy by giving a big ol' "ackchyually" and saying that all the breeding he does is helping to conserve tigers. But any "conserving" he's doing is superficial in nature. It's like breeding labradoodles with Dalmatians and claiming you're saving wolves from extinction. There's also another weird problem that all this uncontrolled breeding has done, which is...
We'll cut right to the quick here -- white tigers basically don't exist anywhere other than captivity, and when you see one, there's about a 99.9% chance they were bred like that on purpose. Furthermore, because the lack of pigmentation is coupled with the recessive trait of being cross-eyed, all white tigers are, in fact, cross-eyed, and often have other genetic problems. For real, take a look.
One of the common problems with "purebred" cats or dogs around the world is that genetic problems are going to get passed down and eventually become nearly a hallmark of the breed. This can range from hip dysplasia to poor vision to a whole host of other things. The gene pool for each breed is small enough that there's no way to breed the problems out.
This is an even bigger problem with big cats, and one of the biggest examples is cheetahs. Carole says that in 30 years of rehabilitating big cats, she's never seen a cheetah rescue. Cheetahs are down to about 15,000 in number around the world, and the extreme lack of genetic diversity is darned near unique. It won't be habitat destruction that kills the cheetah (though that'll contribute), it'll be inbreeding.
What this all boils down to is that, as Tiger King really illustrated, the excessive breeding of big cats is a wild, dangerous practice that's screwing over animals and ruining people's lives. We have to encourage people to not support such blatantly bad things. Stopping the breeding of big cats by random bozos, stopping the whole cub petting trade, and ending private big cat ownership is something that everyone should just kind of agree on. Carole Baskin was clear with me from the get-go that her whole goal with Big Cat Rescue is that, ideally, it will one day no longer need to be open. That should be the biggest takeaway from Tiger King, too.