“Tiger King” has landed, but it missed its mark. The Netflix series has alternately shocked, nauseated or angered Minnesotans who have tuned in to distract themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Tiger King” features several roadside zoos that house big cats and other wild animals in substandard conditions. Unfortunately, the show chose to sensationalize the personalities of the zoos’ owners — especially Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic), who is in prison for killing five tigers and committing other crimes — instead of spotlighting the serious issues facing captive tigers, lions and other big cats in the United States.

The truth that the producers of “Tiger King” failed to adequately expose includes the suffering inflicted on big cats kept as pets and in roadside zoos and cruelly exploited for public handling. They also missed the opportunity to emphasize the need for passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a federal bill that would ban possessing big cats as pets and prohibit exhibitors from using big-cat cubs for paying visitors to pet, feed and pose for pictures or play with.

These facilities breed cubs for this purpose, then take them from their mothers as newborns, depriving them of proper maternal care and harming their development. After just a few months, when the cubs are too big to be easily handled, they are warehoused in substandard menageries, kept as pets in backyards or basements, or killed. To maintain the cash flow from public encounters, new cubs are produced to replace the ones who age out, resulting in a cycle of big cats being born, used for public encounters and disposed of.

This cruel practice fuels widespread abuse of these animals and has created an overpopulation of captive big cats. One especially tragic result occurred in 2007 in Duluth, when a tiger and her four newborn cubs were featured as part of a carnival in a tent pitched in a parking lot. Subjected to continual handling so the paying public could view and photograph them, all four cubs were dead just two days after their birth.

Captive big cats also pose a safety risk to the public and to first responders. Since 1990, at least 400 dangerous incidents involving captive big cats have occurred in the United States. In 2005, a Minnesota boy was attacked by a tiger and a lion kept in a private collection outside Little Falls. Southeastern Minnesota was the scene of another high-profile tiger attack in 2001 when a young girl was wounded at Bearcat Hollow in Racine.

In 2011 a man in Zanesville, Ohio, released dozens of big cats and other wild animals from his private menagerie, putting in harm’s way the surrounding community as well as the sheriff’s deputies who were forced to shoot and kill the animals. Incidents like this are why the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police have endorsed the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

We need Minnesota’s congressional delegation to step forward and support the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Passing this bill will prioritize the safety of the public and the well-being of big cats in the United States. Please contact Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith to ask them to cosponsor S. 2561, the Senate version of the bill. We thank Reps. Angie Craig and Betty McCollum for co-sponsoring H.R. 1380, the House version, and we urge Minnesota’s other representatives to sign on.

With your help, we can put an end to having big cats as pets and to the abuse of big cats that many roadside zoos — including some featured in “Tiger King” — exploit for profit.


Christine Coughlin is Minnesota state director for the Humane Society of the United States.