May 23 / Dr Michelle Wittham-Jones & Dr Emily Stone

Do cat owners unwittingly share some traits with Netflix’s self-styled Tiger King?

The Netflix seven-part docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness about a roadside zoo, in Wynnewood, USA, profiled the story of Joe Exotic, aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage. Although Joe Exotic was the focus of the docuseries, he was joined by a cast of mostly other men; narcissistic players who use lions, tigers and other animals as a vehicle for financial or sexual gain. The most common practice was ‘cub petting,’ allowing members of the public to cuddle and play with young lions and tigers. This practice took place in zoos, hotel rooms and even during a taxi service in Las Vegas.

Joe Exotic brazenly admitted that he made $100,000 on cubs between their 4th and 16th weeks of life but in another scene he bragged that members of the public were holding only hour old cubs! In probably one of the most disturbing scenes, Joe and a member of his staff crouch outside the cage of a tiger going through labour and he is seen hooking the kittens away from the mother with a metal pole as soon as she has given birth. The close up shot of the mother tiger’s face is heart-breaking.

The series was addictive viewing and has become one of Netflix’s top-rated programmes reaching 34 million unique views within its first ten days on the platform, despite leaving many viewers with a sense of incredulity and horror. The series arguably failed to engage directly with many of the ethical issues surrounding the treatment, exhibition, breeding and selling of the other-than-human animals kept in zoos like Joe Exotic’s, but it has certainly ignited a much needed conversation.

What is it about roadside zoos that have caused such opposition since the docuseries aired? Reading though social media posts, web reviews and speaking with animal lovers who were left horrified by the show, we collated some of the common themes that were expressed. Whilst putting together this kitchen-table research, our own domestic moggies curled around our legs or sat on typing-fingers on the keyboard. And after a brief discussion it struck us. The most vociferous complaints were about the housing and care of captive tigers but these are similar to the way in which many domestic cats live. Is it justifiable to argue that big cats are ‘wild’ and should not be exposed to humans whereas domestic cats have been bred to live with us? Weren’t domestic cats once wild too, a mere 5000 or so years ago? Some even argue that cats should still be considered ‘wild’ or at least ‘semi-domesticated’. Could some of the critique about roadside zoos be levelled at us domestic cat owners?

Free from humans, being your own agent, living the way you choose? 

To begin to compare the similarities between captive wild cats and domestic cats it is important to have an understanding of ‘natural habitat’ and ‘wildness’ itself. The habitat of an animal is often reflected in their evolutionary traits. An example of this is the tiger’s stripes that help them camouflage in jungles. When humans became bipedal it was quite helpful for carrying tools and endurance running. However, we tend to use our evolutionary adapted traits for different purposes these days and our natural habitat has extended well beyond the savannahs where we first stood on two feet. The point being that whilst we may think that a natural habitat is the one we are adapted for, we are living proof that it is possible to extend that niche. Wildness is a similarly flexible and contestable entity. What does it mean to be ‘wild’? Free from humans, being your own agent, living the way you choose? Should humans be considered wild then because we are largely our own agents? Are we free agents?

Many of us enable our domestic cats to transcend the space between wildness and domesticity by providing them with a cat flap. In their version of the wild they are able to carry out many of their species-specific behaviours such as spraying, scratching, hunting and socialising (or not) with other cats. These cats often enter though the portal from wild to domestic, via a cat flap, completely voluntarily and often in time for a tin of food. You could say they are free, autonomous beings. Yet the cost of that freedom often involves a loss of a sex life, as we commonly denature cats so that they cannot carry out the same sexual and reproductive behaviours as wild cats. Free living tiger cubs stay with their mother for up to two years, and for domestic cats who are able to reproduce, it is often us, not them, that removes their kittens. We also hold the privileged and sometimes agonising position of arbiter of their health which often includes difficult treatment decisions and determining when their lives should end if they become sick.

It could be argued that house cats, or those kept permanently indoors, actually fare worse in this comparison because like the big cats in Joe Exotic’s zoo, they are unable to leave the enclosure that we keep them in, namely our houses. Although this can keep them safe from certain outside dangers such as road traffic accidents and fighting injuries, they are unable to carry out many of their natural behaviours and have no choice in their exposure to humans. We choose their food, their litter type, their bedding and who else they need to share their living space with.

Despite the emerging ethical questions from sharing our lives so closely with domestic cats, perhaps we shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping and loving them, and perhaps the public who take part in ‘petting’ lion and tiger cats are as equally drawn to felines as we are. But, how many of us pick up our cats without checking that they want us to? How many of us assume their consent in ‘cuddles’? If the Tiger King makes us feel uncomfortable, then perhaps we should look at our own treatment of domestic cats and ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes. ‘Cat flap cats’ offer us an opportunity to experience human-animal interactions and a close bond with our much-loved cats without taking away the other-than-human animal’s autonomy and freedom. By allowing our cats to cross the divide into their version of wildness, we encourage them to indulge in their feline behaviours and we respect their preferences and individuality.