Last week, the Oklahoma roadside zoo where Joe Exotic bred tiger cubs, ripped them from their mothers as soon as they were born, hit them so they would pose with visitors for photos, and disposed of many of them when they were no longer of any use to him, reopened to the public. The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (GW Exotics) saw a boost in visitors despite the pandemic, according to media reports, as a result of its new-found fame since the airing of the Netflix series “Tiger King.”
GW Exotics is not the only roadside zoo that’s reopened. Others across the United States, including Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari, also featured in the Netflix series, are luring in visitors. These are ramshackle operations that even in normal times exploit the animals in their care with no regard whatsoever for their safety, or the safety of the visitors patronizing them. But in the midst of a pandemic, the dangers are even greater. Big cats are known to be especially susceptible to human-animal transmission of the coronavirus, with five tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo having tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Despite these risks, roadside zoos are not only packing in the visitors by offering perks like free admission, some, like GW Exotics, continue to offer visitors access to the animals.
One of those visitors who visited GW Exotics on May 2nd told National Geographic that she was able to book a cub-petting experience with two baby tigers and witnessed a cub being passed around to a group of 25 people who were able to pet the animal. Visitors could pay to feed the tigers animal crackers. Multiple visitors stated that they did not see staff wearing masks and they were not asked to wear gloves or masks.
What goes on behind the scenes is worse, as we have revealed in our investigations of roadside zoos, including a 2011 undercover investigation of GW Exotics. At GW, for example, our investigators documented untrained staff handling animals, and cubs being routinely punched, dragged and whipped to “train” and handle them. Animals kept in such conditions often suffer from chronic stress which can decrease immune system function, increasing their susceptibility to viruses and other ailments. Cubs already have weaker immune systems due to their young age, especially cubs taken away from their mother and her nutrient-rich milk.
The United States is not alone in exploiting big cats for the tourism industry; operations that offer close contact between humans and big cats exist in Thailand and South Africa, and they need to be closed down to prevent another pandemic. South Africa, for instance, is home to more than 300 captive lion breeding facilities where up to 12,000 lions live, most in deplorable conditions. Many of these facilities allow tourists to cuddle, pet and bottle-feed lion cubs. Lions at these facilities are intensively bred and newborn cubs are ripped away from their mothers mere days or hours after being born.
The Netflix series and its focus on Joe Exotic’s bizarre life failed to focus attention on the deep animal welfare problems that fester in roadside zoos like GW Exotics and other tourism enterprises that exploit big cats. Earlier this month, after hearing of a new series on Joe Exotic starring Nicholas Cage, we offered the producers materials from our undercover investigation in hopes that the new series would accurately portray the terror wreaked on animals at GW Exotics. While so many viewers have focused solely on the outlandish lives of the characters in the “Tiger King,” we can never forget that all that drama came at a very high cost to the animals. Now, with a pandemic upon us, our fight to end this especially cruel brand of exploitation continues with greater urgency than ever before.