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Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has shined a spotlight on animal rights violations through the lens of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic.” But the docuseries from directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin doesn’t tell the full story, according to some featured in the series.
Case in point: Brittany Peet, a PETA Foundation lawyer who testified at Maldonado-Passage’s trial and rescued nearly 50 animals from his custody. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Peet says the audience reaction to Joe Exotic specifically and the Netflix doc at large “has been all over the place,” with most viewers “able to see beyond the train wreck quality of Tiger King, and see that these people are criminals, these people are abusing animals, and they are not good people.”
“It has been disheartening to see people embracing the misogynistic aspects of Tiger King,” says Peet. “Looking past the fact that Joe racked up more than 200 violations of the Animal Welfare Act while he was operating, he admitted shooting five tigers in the head just to make room for the tigers he was being paid to board. He indiscriminately sold baby tigers to people he knew were going to bash them in the head with a hammer, or he claimed would kill them in a gas chamber after they were no longer useful for photo ops. He literally terrorized and hunted Carole Baskin for years. Some people are coming away from the experience thinking Joe is some kind of hero, and Carole is the villain. That’s been disheartening.”
Ahead, Peet speaks with THR and offers insight into the players featured in Tiger King based on her direct experience with these individuals, expresses why she believes there’s value in further episodes (or even seasons) of Tiger King, the ways in which the documentary has opened up conversations surrounding animal rights violations and more.
How accurate was Tiger King in its portrayal of events?
The documentary covered some five years of this whole saga, with all of these different players. There’s no way to accurately boil down all of that time into seven hours of television. The filmmakers were at a disadvantage, because these are people who are constantly churning out drama. There’s so much that necessarily could not be covered in this.
For example, viewers didn’t learn about Tim Stark, who operates Wildlife in Need, and is shown as Jeff Lowe’s erstwhile business partner. PETA has an Endangered Species Act lawsuit pending against Tim Stark and Wildlife in Need right now, so we know perhaps better than anyone just how much of a villain Stark is. That’s something I hope people learn. If there’s another season or another episode of Tiger King, I hope it’s something that’s delved into more. This is a man who gleefully admitted beating a leopard to death with a baseball bat. He’s one of the only exhibitors who declawed baby tigers, just to make it easier and safer for him to selfishly interact with these animals as they grew up. Declawing isn’t like trimming a cat’s nails. It’s an amputation. It could be likened to amputating a human’s finger at the last joint. It causes permanent lameness and psychological distress to these animals. A number of animals at Stark’s facilities died as a result of complications from these procedures. There is certainly so much to this story that viewers didn’t get to see.
I do think Carole’s part of the story was exaggerated. Her cages were not accurately represented. There’s a scene where hoards of people are standing outside of this facility, which is a clip from an annual event where Big Cat Rescue raises funds for the conservation of big cats in the wild. They normally have a few tour groups of less than 20 people per day. Viewers were made to believe that there are crowds and hordes of people rampaging through this sanctuary every day, and that’s simply not accurate. Anyone who walks away from this thinking there’s any similarity between the treatment of cats provided at Carole’s sanctuary Big Cat Rescue and G.W. Exotic, Joe and Jeff Lowe’s facility, are walking away with a huge misimpression.
What has your experience been with Carole Baskin and Big Cat Rescue?
I have worked with Carole and Howard Baskin for several years on advocacy for captive big cats in particular. I have found them to be tireless and compassionate advocates for captive big cats. Their advocacy program is second to none. They truly care. I’ve been to Big Cat Rescue myself several times. The care they provide animals is incredible. They’re accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which is the gold standard accrediting body for sanctuaries around the world. They provide the best standards for captive wildlife care, largest minimum cage size, best enrichment standards.
The biggest difference between a true sanctuary like Big Cat Rescue and the other facilities we see in Tiger King, is that in a true sanctuary, animals are never bred, bought or sold. There’s never any direct contact between humans and dangerous wild animals like tigers. That exploitation factor is a huge distinction between Big Cat Rescue and the other facilities featured in Tiger King.
Can you talk about your involvement in the case against Joe Exotic, and your interactions with him?
I first met Joe in November of 2017. He got himself embroiled in another one of our Endangered Species Act cases that we have; he took in 19 tigers from that facility in violation of a federal court order. He agreed to let us take those 19 tigers and have them transferred to a sanctuary. I met him on the day we went to get those tigers. It turns out, that was around the time he was in conversations with the FBI informant that ultimately brought him down. During those conversations I had with Joe, just like you see on Tiger King, he was fixated on “that bitch Carole Baskin.” That was every other word out of his mouth: “That bitch Carole Baskin.” He couldn’t have a conversation without him complaining about Carole, how she was ruining his life. He was backed into a corner at that time. He was facing collection on Carole’s million-dollar judgment that was bankrupting him. At the same time, he was falling out with Jeff Lowe, who was taking over his zoo.
Joe turned to PETA to see if we could help him get out of it. Almost from the first moment I met him, he started spilling his guts about what he knew of other exhibitors he had done business with over the years. One of the first things he told me was that many exhibitors who do tiger cub petting end up killing the cubs once they outlive their usefulness for cub petting. He said some of them hit [the tigers] in the head with a hammer, he said that Doc Antle puts the babies in a gas chamber and cremates their bodies in an onsite crematorium, and he explained to me in detail how they hide those cats from the [United States Department of Agriculture] so that they don’t get caught. I ended up testifying in the trial [against Joe], but I actually testified for the defense. Not because I wanted to; I was subpoenaed. Other than himself, an attorney for PETA was the only defense witness in his trial.
Why are Joe and other similar exhibitors not more firmly on the radar of the USDA?
They were. His activities were firmly on the radar of the USDA, because PETA put them there, and PETA has said repeatedly that the USDA is complicit with all of the animal suffering and death Joe has perpetrated throughout the years. They knew about it. We told them about it. When he was first arrested, the USDA had four open investigations into Joe’s animal welfare violations, but they were not moving on them. They suspended his license twice over the years. The fined him. But ultimately, they allowed him to act, knowing he was selling indiscriminately hundreds if not thousands of baby tigers to people who were killing and declawing and committing all these other crimes against them. Joe himself was abusing animals. There were several incidents throughout the years where he would openly post on Facebook about denying animals with horrific injuries veterinary care, and he would post videos of himself stitching up screaming bears and tigers, because he wasn’t willing to pay a veterinary bill — and the USDA did nothing.
I really hope, and PETA really hopes, that the fervor around Tiger King and the increased attention these animal welfare issues are getting will spur the USDA to act, and not allow the next Joe Exotic — and they’re all out there: Doc Antle, Jeff Lowe, Tim Stark, Mario [Tabraue] in Miami, all of these guys — that the USDA will step up and finally do what’s right and stop them from operating. This abuse is continuing all over the country, and the USDA has the power to stop it.
How would you advise people who watched Tiger King and are themselves feeling galvanized to learn more about this world and do something?
The most important thing every single person can do to help stop this cruelty is to simply never, ever pay to interact with a tiger cub or other animal and never, ever visit a roadside zoo. The other very important thing people can do is to call their federal representatives and ask them to support the Big Cat Safety Act, which would prohibit the privatization of big cats, including tigers, and critically would prohibit direct contact between members of the public and big cats, including tigers. If we get the Big Cat Safety Act passed, this whole tiger cub petting business would be closed down for good. One of the biggest welfare issues for captive wildlife in the United States would be solved. People can go to PETA.org and learn more about the players they saw in Tiger King, and also learn about some of the players who were not featured in Tiger King. There are a lot more than just the few Tiger King taught us about.
Earlier, you mentioned “if there’s another season or episode of Tiger King.” Do you feel this series was more helpful than harmful, in that it at least shined a light on this world? Do you feel there is utility to there being more Tiger King?
I think there’s huge utility in the fact that we’re having these types of conversations right now. It’s given PETA and other animal welfare organizations working on this issue a platform to educate the public about the real issues that may have been glossed over in Tiger King. But people are paying attention now more than ever. I think there’s great value in that. If another season or another episode would continue that conversation, then I think it’s absolutely worth doing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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