Victoria White: Awful circus of ‘Tiger King’ may be closer to home than we imagine

In Ireland, have no laws to protect the public from potentially dangerous wild animals, writes Victoria White.
Victoria White: Awful circus of ‘Tiger King’ may be closer to home than we imagine
Joe Exotic: Irish viewers may be surprised to learn we have poorer regulation of the keeping of wild animals than they do in Oklahoma, home of the star of ‘Tiger King’.

In Ireland, have no laws to protect the public from potentially dangerous wild animals, writes Victoria White.

PANDEMIC historians will struggle to understand, in the future, why millions of people confined to their homes because of a deadly disease watched seven episodes of a documentary about “a gay, gun-toting redneck with a mullet” who bred tigers in Oklahoma.

Except perhaps they won’t.

Because if it’s escapism you’re looking for, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, currently the most popular show in the US on Netflix, is as good as it gets.

I’ll try not to spoil it for those who haven’t yet indulged as I set the scene: The Netflix documentary focuses on a feud between Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma-based zoo-keeper, and Carole Baskin, who runs a big cat sanctuary in Florida.

She wanted to shut him down on animal welfare grounds. He wanted to kill her and tried hiring two different hit men before being found out and indicted.

He is serving a 22-year sentence in Grady County Jail, Oklahoma, where he says he identifies with the animals he caged because “We can all be drove crazy by doing nothing”.

A simple battle between good and evil? Tiger King’s directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin take the model and send it crashing to the ground.

The characters range from awful to god-awful, and the plot is like Dickens on crystal meth — the preferred drug, it seems, of some of Joe Exotic’s husbands.

Except one of them is with us no more, having shot himself in the head in Joe’s office, a scene we witness via the horrified expression of a fellow worker filmed on CCTV.

Meanwhile, back at Carole Baskin’s sanctuary, the search continues for her millionaire husband who disappeared in 1994, and who Joe Exotic believes she killed and fed to her tigers. He released a music video on that theme with the title, ‘Here, Kitty, Kitty’.

Fundamentally, we are watching a circus.

Tiger King is escapist because it confirms our distance from those awful people and makes us feel surprisingly good about ourselves.

While this is not daily life anywhere, however, it could theoretically be daily life in most places.

In Ireland, we have worse regulation of the keeping of wild animals than they do in Oklahoma, where newly-introduced state laws would make public contact with big cats illegal.

We have no laws at all to protect the public from potentially dangerous wild animals.

In the UK and Northern Ireland, the Dangerous Wild Animals Order, in law since 1994, means you have to apply for a licence to keep such a “pet”.

Here in the Republic, you need a licence to keep a dog but you don’t need one to keep a tiger, a lion, a liger, a jaguar, a cheetah, a leopard, or whatever brand of big cat goes best with your wallpaper.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been campaigning for a dangerous wild animals law for more than 20 years.

They want a “white list” of animals which it is legal to import as a pet.

Currently, it is legal to import any animal bred in captivity in the EU which Kevin Cunningham of the National Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Co Meath says can mean virtually any animal from venomous snakes, to wallabies, to reptiles, to meerkats, to wolf hybrids, to crocodiles, to scorpions.

There have not been many reports of people keeping the bigger wild animals — tigers were found some years ago in Co Limerick, a jaguar was found in Dublin, while two bears were found in a shed in Co Leitrim — but small wild cats, such as the savannah cat, a cross between a serval and a domestic cat, are popular.

There is legislation governing primates such as monkeys, but if you claim they are for your own personal enjoyment you can go ahead, even if you intend to sell them.

The welfare of the animals is arguably regulated under the Animal Welfare Act (2013) though you don’t have to enquire too deeply into our puppy farming business to question how well that’s going; a survey conducted by this newspaper in 2018 found that most dog owners didn’t care where their puppies came from.

By contrast, the UK this week effectively outlawed large-scale puppy farming with Lucy’s Law, which means you must buy a puppy or kitten directly from its breeder, separated from its mother only when it’s ready.

It is certain that many exotic animals are being mistreated in Ireland because, though their care is specialised and expensive, they are easy to buy.

Pet shops have a voluntary code for notifying the authorities if they are selling exotic animals, but Mr Cunningham has seen meerkats, raccoons, and monkeys for sale in shops.

You can get any reptile or spider from anywhere in the EU couriered within 36 hours.

Five years ago, an abandoned Co Carlow house was found to contain at least 100 lethal spiders such as black widows and tarantulas which the former resident had bought online.

What’s surer still is that the Irish public is being mistreated by this total lack of regulation.

Just a couple of months ago, an 8km radius around Riverstick, Co Cork, was deemed a surveillance zone when a sable, a type of ferret, showed signs of carrying rabies. That was the first such case in Ireland in 118 years.

Covid 19 may have originated in pangolins, which were the most traded mammal on earth and are functionally extinct but a delicacy in China. With most of our new diseases coming from animals, in the era of globalisation it is surely more vital than ever to restrain the movement of non-native species.

Climate change means we can be less and less sure that non-natives will perish. At least three different breeds of turtle have been found in my local River Dodder.

Snakes are found regularly, with this year featuring a sea snake in Youghal, and, last year in the Wicklow mountains, a Burmese python which can kill victims by constriction.

VENOMOUS snakes can kill you, particularly if there is usually no antidote to their venom available nationally, as is the case with many venoms in Ireland.

Scarier still is the prospect of wild animals surviving and breeding here.

We have seen what the grey squirrel and the mink have achieved, so let’s not even contemplate the raccoon or the raccoon-dog, much less a wolf hybridised with a German shepherd — the popular “wolf hybrid” — on the loose.

Quite frankly, what worries me most is that dangerous animals are often kept by people who are dangerous themselves.

They are typically men disadvantaged from birth with a crippling need to reassert their manhood.

Though here they may tend to keep vicious dogs, rather than tigers, the psychology is exactly the same: They are displaying their dominance over nature to prove themselves.

Our access to firearms is, thankfully, much less easy than in the US, but our enjoyment of Tiger King shouldn’t blind us to the fact that crippling poverty, lack of education, and social isolation exist here too, and the consequences are just as bad.

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