We asked the director of an Irish wildlife park what he made of the controversial Netflix series. Not surprisingly, he had some strong opinions, writes
SEAN MCKEOWN is director of Fota Wildlife Park in Cork. Originally from Co Monaghan and now living in Midleton with his family, McKeown was one of millions of people who has watched Netflix sensation Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness in recent weeks.
While many of us were distracted with the gripping human sub-plots playing out in the documentary series, McKeown says he was appalled by much of what he saw on the show. Words such as “disturbing” and “disgusting” pepper his conversation while talking about the programme and the treatment of the animals at Joe Exotic’s facility.
Overcrowding, small enclosures, and exploitation of both animals and staff were some of the standout issues for him. He also had fears about what we didn’t see, from proper veterinary care to other practices to subdue the animals.
McKeown is well qualified to talk about such matters. He holds the stud book in Europe for the breeding programme for the northern cheetah that Fota has been a very successful part of, and in recent years has brought in Asiatic lions and Sumatran tigers to the Cork facility as part of international programmes.
At Joe Exotic’s zoo, photo opportunities with cubs were a big money-spinner, and to facilitate this, young tigers were removed from their mother at a very young age.
McKeown says tigers and other carnivores can have trouble with a first litter, and intervention may be necessary, but in general European zoos would try to give the mother the experience.
“Sometimes the animals go through a difficult time, but it’s better that the mother gets the chance to rear them. And then the next time he has cubs, she stands a better chance of being successful. But here, where they showed them being taken away as soon as they were born, to help make them very tame as pets, and then sold on... the European Association of Zoos are totally against that.”
One of the zoo owners in Tiger King makes the claim that breeding tigers is beneficial in a world where such animals are declining in the wild. McKeown discounts this, and says they was little or no conservation value to what he saw in the show.
Breeding unrelated animals is crucial to keeping the general population healthy, but he says a lot of the animals in Tiger King were “obviously inbred”.
“We have breeding programmes where certain animals are recommended to breed, because they’re more genetically important in the population, and not as related to the rest of the population as others would be.
“Some animals’ parents bred very well, so their offspring wouldn’t be recommended for breeding as they’d be related to a lot of others. But an animal who hadn’t bred widely would be recommended.
“For instance, with some of the Sumatran tigers, they have come in [to captivity} because of conflict with people... They might have been injured in a trap. So there’s a possibility of using them in a breeding programme to help ensure a more genetically diverse population.”
McKeown also frowns on the breeding of selected gene mutations for show purposes. For instance, white tigers come from a very small gene pool, and develop crossed eyes, scoliosis of the spine, and other problems. The cross-breeding of lions and tigers in the huge ‘ligers’ that we also saw in the show can create similar health issues.
The limited feeding budget in Joe Exotic’s zoo meant that the animals relied on waste meat from supermarkets. As the facility ran into trouble we also saw a big group of hungry animals waiting to be fed. It’s obviously a far from ideal situation for big cats.
“All our cats get meat on the bone,” explains McKeown of Fota and the meat they buy from approved abattoirs. “It’s more natural — they lick the bone, they get calcium from it. The animal also takes more time eating it so it’s more enriching for them.”
One of the other bizarre scenes in relation to the animals being fed was a shot of some of the low-paid staff going through the cast-off meat so they could find cuts to feed themselves. McKeown is aghast at the treatment of staff he witnessed throughout the show.
“They were being exploited. Joe Exotic was picking people who had issues, and using that to take advantage of them and get them working with animals. And many of them would have had no experience.”
Contrast that to Fota, where many of the staff come from a background in zoology, or would have undergone a two-year training programme via a university in the UK.
Safety issues were also a big concern. In Tiger King, we see how one staff member lost part of their arm to a tiger, and we also see Joe Exotic having a narrow escape when he’s dragged by the foot.
At Fota, strict safety procedures such as multiple doors keep staff separate from the lions and tigers.
“People going in the enclosure with animals is an absolute no-no. No way would you go in with an animal like that. Their instinct is to kill you. Even in Fota, the animals associate you with food – and that’s a very dangerous link to have. If somebody went in the enclosure here, they’d be killed. That natural instinct is still there.”
In Ireland and other parts of Europe, the type of facility run by Joe Exotic would not be permitted, and regulations are much stricter about keeping exotic animals as pets.
The US does have a similar association of zoo facilities as the European organisation, but a low proportion of zoos are affiliated with it, and legislation isn’t as strongly enforced by the state. McKeown says facilities such as Joe Exotic’s are very common.
“They feel their individual rights mean they can do these things — it’s like the right to bear arms. And it’s that sort of person that’s attracted to it. It’s about the exploitation of animals for their pleasure, and for nothing else.”
The Monaghan man also points to the fact that exotic animals are still allowed in American circuses, and refers to wider issues with the current political leadership. US president Donald Trump and his family have a poor reputation on conservation and environment issues.
“For a country that’s so well developed, it’s so weird to have such regressive ideas, concepts and policies. It might have happened [in Europe] in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but not now. We’re supposed to have become more aware of nature and the environment but that doesn’t seem to have happened in the US.
“And even look at the policies of the current American government towards wildlife and nature. They have backtracked on a lot of legislation designed to protect nature. They have allowed a lot of areas to be mined and exploited. To me, it shows a sad lack of leadership.”