Tiger King is one of the most talked-about TV shows of the year. More than that: it’s “the pandemic’s first pop culture phenomenon,” noted The Hollywood Reporter. Netflix’s seven-episode series – juicy entertainment sizzling with spicy characters and murder-for-hire intrigue – has been such a roaring success that Nicolas Cage has been tapped for a CBS miniseries, one of three rumoured competing dramatisations.
But look past its blockbuster value, and the global hit has helped to spark a long-overdue conversation about animal exploitation, big cat breeding and exotic pet ownership that extends beyond the US.
There is no overarching federal law regulating big cat ownership in America, and it is estimated that there are 7,000 captive tigers in America: more than there are left in the wild.
In Britain, the numbers are substantially lower, but it is still technically legal to keep a pet tiger at home. There are currently around 200 wild cats and 50 big cats licensed to be kept privately, including four tigers in Lincolnshire, three cheetahs in Cumbria and six clouded leopards in Cornwall. The same 2017 survey from the Born Free Foundation revealed a jaw-dropping 4825 dangerous wild animal licences across 136 UK local authorities in total.
Under the UK’s Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 & 1984, every creature classed as a dangerous wild animal has to be licensed with the relevant local authority.
“The situation in the UK is bizarre,” says Dr Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity at the Born Free Foundation. “I don’t think a lot of people know that you can have these animals in theory. The only limiting factor is availability, because if you’re very keen on getting a puma and you’re able to find one, there’s very little that local licensing authorities can do to stop you.”
According to Dr Draper, the numbers don’t reflect the many animals that are also being housed illegally.
“I think the majority of these are venomous invertebrates and snakes. But there are definitely servals or hybrid servals out there, too.” Servals are medium-sized wild cats native to Africa, sleek and slender, with long legs and cheetah-like coats. Categorised as dangerous animals, these so-called “designer pets” (Justin Bieber owns two savannah cats, which are a mix of domestic breed and serval) require a licence to be kept privately.
As of 2018, there were at least 50 servals in the hands of private owners in the UK. Dr Draper – who’s calling for a ban on the trade and future keeping of exotic pets – categorically doesn’t agree with keeping these animals (medium cats, you might say) as pets.
“They’re wild animals by nature and they’re very springy, jumpy, reactive and unpredictable. Thankfully, most people can see that getting a big cat is a crazy idea. But servals, not so much. In my assessment, you’re not going to have something that’s suited to a domestic environment. They definitely pose a greater risk of injury to you or your kids than getting a random cat from Cats Protection. It’s all about aesthetics: it’s because they have interesting coat patterns.”
Jamie Mintram echoes those views. He co-runs the Ark wildlife park and exotic animal sanctuary in Lincolnshire with his wife Michelle.
“I don’t think servals make good pets. Chances are that, in a domesticated home, you won’t be able to provide them with the right environment. If you want a cat,” states Mintram, who would like to see tighter regulations for keeping exotic animals as pets, “get a domesticated cat.”
As the UK’s first rescue zoo, Ark takes in unwanted or illegally kept exotic animals that have been rescued from the European pet trade. They also work with authorities like Border Force, who will contact Ark if an animal has been smuggled in illegally. The Mintrams recently rescued a hybrid wild cat that was brought into Heathrow. Equally, they’re on the alert for (as it were) home-grown exotic animals.
“You’d be surprised to learn what people are breeding in their back gardens. The rescued crocodiles we have here, for example, were captive-bred in the UK. When people realise that the fantasy doesn’t match the reality, it’s too much hard work, or they get bitten. That’s when the animals are handed over to us.”
Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom in Telford, run by Will Dorrell, has a menagerie of exotic animals. His collection includes bobcats, servals and caracals that were acquired from both private collections and zoos. Dorrell, who has been interested in big cats since he was a child, explains that the cats live in pairs or alone in enclosures.
“I have huge respect for the power that even the smaller cats have and the agility shown by all of them. They are incredibly clever, so the one challenge is trying to think up new ideas to keep them mentally stimulated. But this is a nice challenge to have.”
Has he ever been attacked?
“You’ll get the odd scratch here and there, but nothing of particular note.”
Mike Potts is the general secretary of BeastWatch UK. It’s a 1000-member-strong organisation that investigates big cat and exotic animal sightings with a view to returning them to their keepers in the event of an escape. Potts keeps 30 or so species of animal at his home in Lancashire, including a pet fox, a serval and “a savannah cat who is really good friends with the skunk… The skunk is free-roaming and tolerates the dogs, and the dogs tolerate her.”
Among his network of exotic pet owners, Potts knows a number of people who own a number of the smaller big cats. He defends the choice to legally own exotic pets.
“They’re safer there… Some people will say it’s not fair keeping them at home and they should be out in the wild. Well, my pet fox would be dead within a week if he was out in the wild.”
Potts also takes the conservation line regarding captive-breeding – that is, improving the numbers of endangered or threatened species – but this viewpoint is refuted by experts.
“Captive-breeding programmes tend to work best when carried out in the country of origin for the animal that you’re dealing with,” says Dr Draper, “particularly if you’re looking to reintroduce it into the wild, because then there’s no difference in climate or what have you. That’s why you can’t make the case that private keepers keeping what are in effect, pets, is a conservation activity. That’s just pie-in-the-sky, really. It’s a post-hoc defence: I want my cat and my cake.”
For Dr Draper, on top of the potential danger to human life, it’s simply unfair to keep any kind of animal in captivity – especially in a private home.
“Ultimately, I think that the vast majority of these exotic pet owners care very deeply about the animals they have as pets. But they are short-sighted, and in some cases misguided, if they think that love equates to what the animals need. By keeping it in a domestic environment they are not offering it the environment that the animal needs. They’re not offering it the space that that animal would normally occupy in the wild. [Instead they] have evolved to have inherited behaviour that reacts to the animal’s environment.”
He believes that Tiger King was in some ways a missed opportunity.
“It’s not really looking at the issue of big cat ownership with any weight or significant dept, which is a shame. It has, however, prompted an enormous uptick in media interest in the issue. And almost without exception, the conversations I’ve had have been with a view to showing the reality of animal ownership. I hope that is an opportunity to get the point across. And about time, too.”
Might the rumoured Tiger King sequel explore further the moral and ethical questions surrounding big cat ownership? Watch this streaming space.