Inspired by ‘Tiger King,’ Hollywood stars take big cat conservation to Congress

A tiger in a cage
In the wake of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” animal rights activists are appealing to Congress.
(Animal Legal Defense Fund)

After “Blackfish” was released in 2013, its audience turned on SeaWorld.

The documentary depicted how dismal life was for the theme park’s performing killer whales, and viewers were quick to lead a boycott. Musical acts like the Beach Boys and Trisha Yearwood canceled gigs at SeaWorld, while animal rights activists protested the company’s whale float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The park’s ticket sales fell dramatically, and within years it announced plans not only to end orca shows, but also to stop breeding the whales in captivity altogether.

The reaction has not been the same for “Tiger King,” the Netflix docuseries about exotic cats displayed at roadside zoos. While the show has been wildly popular — the streaming company said that 34 million U.S. viewers watched it during its first 10 days of release — the majority of fans seem more interested in its eccentric human characters than its animal stars.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of “Blackfish,” would like to change that. So, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, she has authored a petition to Congress in support of a federal bill called the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The petition — which has been signed by celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix, Glenn Close, Olivia Wilde and Sarah Silverman — calls for an end to the private ownership of big cats and cub petting.


“Once a documentary scores a passionate audience that has stumbled into this world they didn’t know about, you can pivot and give them a meaningful place to land,” said Cowperthwaite, who began thinking of how to get involved after an April 9 New York Times article declared “‘Tiger King’ Is Not ‘Blackfish’ for Big Cats.” “It’s not too late. The film snagged people’s attention. Now it’s about capitalizing on the passion and giving it an outlet, which I’m not sure is clear right now.”

Joe Exotic rides with a tiger in his car in a scene from "Tiger King."

Netflix did not respond to The Times’ request for comment. But in an interview last month, the directors of “Tiger King” acknowledged that they wished the public’s reaction had more to do with animal mistreatment than, say, Joe Exotic’s lip-syncing.

“We hope that people enjoy it, but we did want them to have a serious takeaway, and it is a bummer if they don’t come away understanding that this is not the right way to treat these animals,” said Rebecca Chaiklin, who co-made the series with Eric Goode.

The co-directors of the wild Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” discuss Joe Exotic, the series’ animal rights message and the reaction from fans.

Cowperthwaite said she did not reach out to Goode or Chaiklin about the petition because she did not want to “challenge their intentions.”

“You don’t know if they were subject to notes by their financiers,” she said. “The hope would be that they would look at the fact that there was this movement that came out of ‘Blackfish’ — what could be considered an entertaining film — and bake that into their call to action. It’s a waste of an exercise otherwise. Then you have a bunch of people laughing at meth addicts and laughing at criminals as if they’re characters from a horror movie.”

The House version of the Big Cat Safety Act was first introduced in February 2019, but has had trouble gaining traction with lawmakers because “those who exploit big cats for profit vigorously oppose this bill,” according to Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Joe Exotic with one of his tigers at his park in Oklahoma.

“The legal captive wildlife trade in the U.S. alone is worth an estimated $300 billion annually with the illegal trade estimated to be worth another $5 to 20 billion — comparable to the international trade of narcotics and weapons,” Wells added. “With those high stakes, it’s no surprise that the industry is incredibly reactionary and reacts to any attempts at regulation.”

There are fewer tigers currently living in the wild than there are kept in captivity in the U.S., and no federal laws prohibit private possession of big cats. Four states — Nevada, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama — have no regulations about tiger and lion ownership. The proposed federal bill would allow only those with a USDA license to own a big cat.

“Tiger King” is the Netflix docuseries the internet can’t stop talking about. And like much of true crime, its trashiness isn’t just a harmless diversion.

Cowperthwaite, who admitted to bingeing “Tiger King” like so many millions of others during quarantine, is hopeful that the petition will generate attention even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re not solving pandemics or global warming, but it’s all part of the same puzzle where we don’t relate to the natural world with respect, decency and awe,” she said. “We think we’re superior to it and it’s ours for the taking. I think we’re suffering the effects of that in more than one way right now.”