Tiger king 2: roadside zoos and backyard menageries are no place for big cats

16 November 2021


As Netflix releases the second season of its shockumentary, Born Free renews calls for reform of exotic pet keeping in the UK.  

Two photographs of tigers side by side. On the left, a tiger is shown in a cage and on the right, the tiger is in the wild in a forest setting.

Across the United States, thousands of big cats are kept as pets or held in captivity in roadside zoos like the one formerly owned by Joe Exotic. These wild animals face abuse at every stage of their lives. Cubs are commonly taken away from their mothers as soon as they are born so they can be used in exploitative but very lucrative cub petting and photo-op events, a practice that can cause lifelong physical and psychological harm, and even death.. Once the animals grow too large, strong, and unpredictable to be used at these events, they are often sold into the exotic pet industry; warehoused in substandard zoos where they suffer poor conditions, improper diet, and insufficient space, veterinary care, and enrichment; or killed and sold for their parts. 

While the scale of big cat keeping in the United States is staggering, with literally thousands of tigers, lions and others languishing in shoddy roadside zoos and people’s backyards, the problem is by no means confined to North America. Research carried out by Born Free in 2020 revealed that at least 320 wild cats are privately owned under Dangerous Wild Animals licences here in the UK, including 11 lions, eight tigers, 11 leopards, 18 pumas, 10 cheetahs, two ligers and one jaguar, and that wild cat ownership in the UK is on the increase. This issue was exposed in the ITV documentary, Britain’s Tiger Kings: On The Trail With Ross Kemp, broadcast earlier this year, and subsequently featured in an episode of the W channel series Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over in May. 

As a minimum, Born Free are calling for a full review of the licencing of the private keeping of wild animals in the UK. New regulations must include addressing key welfare needs, keeper qualifications and experience, a guarantee that the trade will not compromise species conservation in the wild, environmental concerns including the consequences of escape or release of invasive species, the spread of zoonotic disease, and the health and safety risks to both the animals and people.

Angela Grimes, CEO, Born Free USA added “The first season of Tiger King cast a harsh light on the dark world of roadside zoos, tiger cub breeding, and the trade in wild animals as pets. It is clear that allowing these activities to continue is not only terribly cruel to the animals, but also extremely dangerous, and a federal solution is needed. Born Free USA has championed the Big Cat Public Safety Act since it was first introduced in 2011. The bill gained traction last year after the series’ release, and eventually passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. With the release of Tiger King 2, Born Free USA urges lawmakers to take swift action to pass this bill into law.” 

Dr Mark Jones, Head of Policy, Born Free stated “It is unbelievable that, in this day and age, so many dangerous animals, including big cats, large primates, crocodiles and venomous snakes, are in private ownership in the UK. The private ownership of big cats leads to immense animal suffering and compromises the safety of the public and the owners of the animals. It also risks animals or products derived from them entering the illegal wildlife trade, with potential knock-on impacts for wild populations. The release of Tiger King 2 provides a further opportunity to stress the importance of bringing a permanent end to the breeding, trade in and keeping of big cats and other dangerous wild animals as pets.” 

Will Travers OBE, Exec President and Co-Founder, Born Free concluded “The original Tiger King shone a spotlight on the brutal reality of life endured by tigers and other big cats held captive in harsh conditions in backyard zoos in the US and around the world. Tiger King 2 makes it crystal clear that this form of wild animal exploitation must stop and that the need for action is all the more urgent. This is the wakeup call: we must stop buying tickets to such places and perpetuating the suffering; we must tighten up the exotic pet licencing laws in the UK; and we must urgently pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act in the US, to ensure that no wild big cats – indeed, no wild animals – should ever have to endure these conditions on our watch, for our ‘entertainment’, ever again. The only place wild animals should live their lives is in the wild.”

In September, Born Free launched “The Exotic Pet-Demic” with the RSPCA, highlighting the scale of exotic pet keeping in the UK, the animal welfare concerns, and the threats the trade poses to species conservation, human safety and the wider environment, and calling on the UK Government to reform the law. 


Image © Linus Moran www.balkanpix.com