10 Things We Can Learn About Trafficking from Tiger King: Featuring Prof. Carney Anne Nasser

Nearly 100 million viewers worldwide have tuned into Netflix’s Tiger King – which showcased cartoonish characters involved on both sides of animal welfare, including big cat rights activist Carole Baskin and tiger trafficker Joe Exotic. But did this cult series only scratch the surface of animal trafficking?

To find out more we brought in venerated animal welfare expert Professor Carney Anne Nasser, whose work has been featured on CNN, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, The New York Times and ABC’s Today Show. Carney Anne is also the attorney who pitched the wildlife trafficking case against “tiger King” Joe Exotic – leading to his arrest and sentence of 22 years in prison for multiple animal crimes. Listen to our full podcast interview below and read on to learn the top 10 things we can learn about trafficking from Tiger King.

  1.   Trafficking Starts and Ends with Demand

Think of it this way, if everyone stopped buying Twinkies, they would take them off the shelf. In the same way, when there is huge demand for a person, or in this case, an exotic animal, there will be someone willing to fill that demand to turn a profit. This demand is created in roadside zoo attractions, private animal ownership and other animal encounters such as a baby tiger being worth upwards of 1 million dollars in the first 12 weeks of their lifetime. Animal trafficking is the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, generating between $7 and $23 billion every year where millions of animals are trafficked.

  1.   Those Creating Demand Often Have No Idea They are Contributing to Trafficking

Studies show that 97% of people don’t believe animals should be abused. However, there is an illusion perpetuated by those in the exotic animal trade who stand to profit from their exploitation by painting a picture of a “family-friendly” animal encounter. We are kept from knowing the truth behind the horrific things done to apex predators and other exotic creatures to ensure their compliance for public use. That is why when we know the truth, we can stop supporting these businesses and their “pay to play” animal encounters.

  1.   Traffickers Always Target Vulnerabilities

Traffickers are extremely skilled manipulators – their best work is done by identifying and targeting weakness, then exploiting it. Animals are unable to speak out and advocate for themselves, leading to the uninhibited ability of a trafficker to abuse them. But similarly from Tiger King we saw how the employees at Joe Exotic’s roadside zoo had various criminal backgrounds or socioeconomic backgrounds– specifically targeted by Joe to ensure their compliance (providing them food, shelter and employment) and to undermine their credibility should they be called to testify against him. He also used their concern and love for the animals to not only attract them to the job but to also justify staying amidst progressively dilapidating conditions.

  1.   There Is No “Template” For A Trafficker.

There is no exact template for a trafficker – they aren’t all outlandish, eccentric, gun-toting zoo owners like Joe Exotic – who boldly advertised his exploits on social media. Sometimes they are subtle and private individuals who have clean looking facilities but are still engaging in animal trafficking.

  1.   Ego Plays a Huge Role in Exploitation

One common thread of traffickers is that ego is at the core of many of their exploits. Obviously animal trafficking is hugely lucrative, but there is also status to be gained by having access to these beautiful, exotic animals. Each character shown in Tiger King was given wealth and status by their association with big cats. Joe Exotic’s ego and the fact that he had gotten away with so much for so long led to some sloppy paperwork and ultimately, his prison sentence of 22 years for his many crimes.

  1.   When Tigers Get Too Old They’re Dumped.

When an animal has reached the apex of their earning potential traffickers can’t dump them fast enough. When they no longer can earn money with baby tiger encounters (around 12 weeks) they become a financial drain, costing about $10,000 every year to feed. Traffickers whose number one concern is profit will attempt to sell these animals to private owners who sometimes pay less than you would for a dog, dump them somewhere or even kill them off. Many of these animals end up at wildlife sanctuaries and have lasting physical injuries from botched declawing, head trauma, bone density issues from lack of proper nutrition, as well as psychological issues from their lives in captivity. Some of them are even bred unnaturally (ex. Ligers) to fill the demand at roadside zoos and suffer premature death and other complications.

  1.   Identifying a True Animal Sanctuary Versus A Roadside Zoo

Similarly, to a trafficker, there is no exact template for a true sanctuary or a roadside zoo. However, there are definitive signs of each. One of the main indicators is the philosophical divide – a true sanctuary’s goal is to be “out of business” – they would never suggest that their facility surpasses what these animals would experience in the wild. A roadside zoo or facility that trafficks animals will often have “pay to play” animal encounter experiences – they want to continue making a profit and dumping animals when they’re maximized their usefulness. Visit www.sanctuaryfederation.org which is the gold standard for a “true sanctuary” to find out which ones you can support.

  1.   No Red Flag is Too Small

Despite all his crimes, ironically Joe Exotic was investigated and ultimately brought down by a paperwork issue. The rule “if you see something say something” is important to remember, when in doubt make a report. 

  1.   There Is Often So Much More Than We Know About

Traffickers often get charged with a fraction of what they’re doing. We can’t assume that there are isolated incidents or that a trafficker is just involved in the exotic animal trade, where there is unchecked ego and possibility of profit, there are often intersections from trafficking exotic animals, to people, to contraband, to illegal substances.

  1. Animal Protection Legislation Isn’t Where It Needs to Be…Yet

The US has an opportunity to pave the way for animal rights internationally by adopting federal legislation that helps protect animals. For example, a recent piece of bipartisan legislation is The Big Cat Public Safety Act – which would create uniformity to outlaw big cat ownership and put an end to public contact and photo ops. This would fight the trafficking issue since this is what is fundamentally driving the rapid “dump” of tigers into exotic pet trade. It also establishes uniformity on a federal level so that law enforcement can have a legal mechanism to go after those in the illegal animal trade. A way you can help is to head over to your federal legislators’ website and encourage them to support this bill. You can also visit www.bigcatalliance.org to support its mission of ending exploitation and private ownership of wild cats in the US

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