Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Conservation Policy

Hey there all you cool cats and kittens,

We are all getting used to life as we practice quarantine, isolation, and social distancing following public health guidance related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. During this time, many of us have binge-watched the new Netflix docu-series, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The seven-part series soared to #1 in US streaming and viewers have flooded social media with Tiger King memes and discussions on the strange world of big cat people. I can’t tell you whether or not Carole Baskin killed her husband or prove that Joe Exotic was set up. However, I can tell you a bit about federal policy and the network of regulations that cover the exotic animal trade and intersections with conservation work. I’m an animal geographer after all, not a detective.

The basis of animal-related charges brought against Joe Exotic:

The Lacey Act combats trafficking of illegally taken fish, wildlife, and plants. Furthermore, there are provisions for the shipment and transportation of wild animals and birds to meet humane and healthful conditions. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), within the Department of the Interior, is tasked with enforcement of the provisions of the Lacey Act. This act covers the possession, sale/purchase, transport, import/export, and general acquisition of fish, wildlife, and plants. The law requires people involved in these activities to report through USDA declaration forms that can include the geographic source, species, and transaction details. Therefore, declaration information is also jointly collected by Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA), an amendment to the Lacey Act, defines “prohibited wildlife species” to mean any live species of lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, jaguar, cheetah, and cougar or any hybrid of such species. The most common hybrids are ligers and tiglons.

This image shows a crudely photoshopped liger from ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ in frame with a still of Joe Exotic from the Netflix series ‘Tiger King’

Deb: What’s a liger?
Napoleon: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.

There are exceptions for wildlife sanctuaries, however these conditions are far different than the operations at Joe’s park. Exemptions to CWSA provisions that would allow entities to possess or transport big cats are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Animal Welfare Act is administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the USDA. For a wildlife sanctuary to qualify they must meet the following criteria:

  • Organization must be a 501(a) non-profit entity
  • Cannot engage in commercial trade in big cat species, including their offspring, parts, and products made from them
  • Cannot breed big cats
  • Cannot allow direct contact between big cats and the public at their facilities
  • Must keep records of transactions involving covered cats
  • Must allow FWS to inspect their facilities, records, and animals at reasonable hours

Implementation of the CWSA is a joint effort between USDA and FWS which tackle inspections and enforcement, respectively. Handling and facility violations, like those brought against Joe Exotic and Doc Antle, are levied by the USDA. FWS served as a key enforcement partner in the prosecution of Joe’s federal felony case. See the figure below for more clarity on each policy and responsible agency. Joe was found guilty of falsifying records of wildlife transactions, a violation of the Lacey Act, because he claimed on forms that animals were being donated when they were actually being sold. Joe was also found guilty of killing five tigers and selling cubs in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA prohibits the taking of, sale, transportation, ownership, and harm of any listed species. Permits may be issued by FWS for scientific research or to enhance the species survival. For big cat owners, this meant registering for a captive-bred wildlife permit. ESA protections previously only covered purebred species. However, the listing was expanded in 2016 to include all Panthera tigris. This nullified previous exemptions on ‘generic’ or mixed-species tigers. Joe Exotic’s motion to dismiss his ESA counts cites that he owned the tigers prior to the generic tiger ruling, therefore he should not be punished for activities made illegal after the fact. Joe has followed up with a civil lawsuit against the FWS for listing the generic tiger as a means of discrimination and financially ruining him by taking away his animals.

This image summarizes three federal policies: Animal Welfare Act, Lacey Act, and the Endangered Species act and the responsible agencies (FWS and USDA).

Key federal conservation policy related to ‘Tiger King’

There is a large body of literature theorizing the politics of wildlife conservation and the role of the state in valuing the lives of certain animals. Braverman (2016) discusses the politics of regulating and listing species as a legal project that orders human-nonhuman relations and reinforces biopolitical differentiation. Applying Braverman’s analysis, the generic tiger was elevated to a political status following the ESA listing, whereas their previous life was merely biological. The acts of listing and classifying species reinforces ontologies, or ways of being, which define the value of nonhuman life. Margulies (2019) discusses the necropolitics of conservation classifications and political procedures following an incident where a tiger mauled a man to death and was subsequently killed by the Indian State. These works help us think through underlying social and political conditions that shape human-wildlife interactions.

Expanding Foucaltian notions of biopower to the nonhuman provides a line of inquiry into the ways power is infused in human-animal interactions and conservation discourse. Srinivasan (2014) makes this linkage between socio-political context and the politics of intervention in non-human lives. Furthermore, Srinivasan establishes agential subjectification as a process involving truth discourse, norms and ontologies by conservationists to promote the care of animal populations. Throughout the series we see how intentions to care for the species result in harmful outcomes. In some instances, harmful outcomes are rationalized by the benefits they provide. For instance, the belief that cub interactions lead to better conservation outcomes since it will drive people to care about their native habitats and continued survival. Srinivasan (2014) sees this entanglement of permissible harm and care as a core logic of conservation by which an individual can be sacrificed for the population.

Increased attention on human-animal relations has made space for debate on conservation politics. In this arena there are many struggles over how things are and how they should be, and difficulties in imagining what we are ceasing to be and therefore become. Can we transform our realities to a demonstration of care and commitment to ethical engagements? In the closing of the series, Joe reflects on the social and physical bonds his chimps were deprived of for ten years. It is my hope that we all come to realize the losses that come with the commodification of nonhuman life, as well as critically examine the role animals play in the functioning of capitalism as they intersect with our political and economic lives.



Braverman, I. (Ed.). (2016). Animals, biopolitics, law : Lively legalities (Space, materiality and the normative). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Margulies, J. (2019). Making the ‘man-eater’: Tiger conservation as necropolitics. Political Geography, 69, 150-161. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.12.011

Srinivasan, K. (2014). Caring for the Collective: Biopower and Agential Subjectification in Wildlife Conservation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(3), 501–517.