A new Netflix series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, has captivated cooped-up audiences across the country. If there was still an office water cooler people could gather around, this crime docu-series is what everyone would be talking about.
The seven-episode show, from filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, details the life of Joe Exotic, a private zoo operator, country singer, and wannabe presidential candidate from Oklahoma. The series exposes the seedy underworld of big-cat breeding and those who live and breathe it; the captivating Joe Exotic is currently serving a prison sentence for his part in a murder-for-hire plot to kill animal rescue advocate Carol Baskin.
Could those large, unregulated big-cat breeding farms exist in Pennsylvania or New Jersey?
In 2018, New Jersey became the first state to bar traveling acts from using wild and exotic animals such as elephants and tigers.
But the state had its own drama back in 1999 when a 400-pound Bengal tiger was found wandering through a Jackson, Ocean County, neighborhood not far from the Tigers Only Preservation Society reserve and was shot and killed.
The owner, “Tiger Lady” Joan Byron-Marasek, denied that the cat was hers, and officials never proved it came from her sanctuary. The state was able to remove the remaining two dozen tigers on her site after a five-year battle and ship them to a rescue in Texas.
In Pennsylvania, while it is legal to own exotic animals like lions, tigers, and bears, it isn’t so easy to get the proper permits.
“We have probably some of the strictest laws in the county,” said Chad Eyler, chief of special permits enforcement division with the state’s Game Commission.
There are three types of permits — zoos that display animals, private owners, and dealers — and all are designed to protect owners, animals, and neighbors.
Not only do applicants need to show they meet the requirements for cage sizes for each particular animal, they must also provide a letter from their municipality stating they would not be violating any local ordinances.
“If they fail to obtain it, we don’t issue a permit,” said Eyler. “We don’t want neighbors walking in saying, ‘Oh, there is a tiger in my neighbor’s backyard.’"
And there is more.
“There is no instant ownership,” said Eyler. The applicants need to prove they have two years of experience and the prerequisite skills needed to care for the animal, including what is involved in feeding of exotics, knowledge about animal husbandry, being well-versed in the health needs of the animals, and knowing how to protect the public from that animal.
The laws are stringent and some carry a violation-a-day provision, which means Game Commission officers can cite owners every 24 hours, he said.
Eyler said his counterparts in other states envy the regulations in Pennsylvania.
“The cat is out of the bag so much in their states, it is hard to get it back in,” he said.
Because of the strong regulations, calls for exotics do not happen often, said Nicole Wilson, humane officer with the Pennsylvania SPCA. These large cats are not appropriate as pets, she said.
“When you try and treat these animals as something other than a wild animal, it always ends badly for someone, whether it is the owner, another person, or the animal,” she said.
But even those who do have the permits to own large cats in Pennsylvania say it is a bad idea for anyone who is not a career professional.
“They are big, they are scary, and they are dangerous," said Chris Hall, manager of the Claws and Paws Wild Animal Park near Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains.
The 47-year-old private zoo has about 150 animals. There are 20 large cats, including two lions and a tiger. The park obtains them from other zoos, he said.
The animals are expensive to keep and feed. And then there’s the cost of staff needed to clean the cages, monitor the animals’ health, and help with enrichment.
The zookeepers do not go in the cages with any of the big cats — ever, Hall said.
“Siegfried and Roy were the best in the world, and look what happened to them,” said Hall. “No one should have an exotic cat as a pet.”
The entertainment duo was known for acts involving white tigers. In 2003, during a show at the Las Vegas Mirage, Roy was attacked and dragged off stage by a tiger. Roy, who was left permanently disabled, allegedly said that the tiger was not to blame for the incident.
“It is never the animal’s fault,” said Jennifer Mattive, one of the owners of the 30-year-old, family-run T & D’s Cats of the World, a big-cat rescue in Penns Creek. “It’s always something a human did to trigger the attack by the animal.”
Most of the big cats at T & D’s had been illegally owned prior to arriving at the zoo and came to the preserve through intervention by government agencies or when owners realized it wasn’t a good idea to keep a wild animal, she said. The zoo is open about 70 days a year, between May and September, she said.