Like many of you, I spent seven hours of my life watching “Tiger King” on Netflix this week. Kate and I got into it; it was our mother/daughter quarantine jam.
I have two (2) experiences with so-called private zoos to share before I get into “Tiger King.” When I was at Bridge, I reported on a story about some bills that were introduced not long after the 2012 incident near Zanesville, Ohio, when a mentally disturbed owner of a private zoo — a state, after watching “Tiger King,” you may assume most of them live in — killed himself, but not before opening all his cages and freeing his animals to roam. By the time the police were done dealing with the grisly aftermath, I believe most of the animals were dead and at least a couple had “disturbed the corpse” of their former keeper, which is how they put it at the news conferences.
There’s only one reference to this in “Tiger King” — a brief snippet in the opening sequence, in which the governor or someone says, “We were amazed that anyone can just own a tiger or lion.” Yep, they can, and my story, which seems to have been re-topped with maybe some editing notes lost in a CMS migration or two, because that’s really not my style, only scratched the surface of the weirdness of private zoos.
In Michigan, as I remember it, some members of the traditional zoo community — facilities like your city’s zoo, with a board of directors and responsible habitat duplication and so on — were pushing legislation that would have made private zoos like the one in Zanesville much harder to establish and run. The legislature, always happy to help out a pal, countered with a bill to protect a single roadside outfit in the Upper Peninsula, where orphaned bear cubs were available for visitors to pet, hold and have their photos taken with them.
As I worked on this, I was introduced to the tension between the AZA, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the ZAA, or Zoological Association of America. What’s the difference? Here’s me:
“The confusion is that AZA and ZAA are basically two different things,” said Tara Harrison, veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo and an opponent of the legislation. “The AZA is the gold standard.” It is the accreditation body that recognizes the zoos most people visit, five in Michigan – Potter Park, the Detroit Zoo, John Ball Zoological Garden in Grand Rapids, Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and the Saginaw Children’s Zoo.
The ZAA, Harrison said, is for smaller, frequently privately owned “roadside zoos” where visitors can not only see animals, but sometimes interact with them.
To differentiate the two, Harrison says, she points to the AZA’s 70-page application for accreditation, as well as numerous protocols pertaining to safety of animals, enclosures and visitors, veterinary care and more, while the ZAA’s, available on its website, “is three pages.”
Here’s one of the pushback bill’s co-sponsor’s take on Big Zoo:
Hune thinks the difference is also one of size and market. The AZA, to him, is the big-money, big-zoo club trying to quash the entrepreneurial upstarts who represent competition for not only visitors, but prestige. The use of the term “roadside zoo” is offensive to many who keep these smaller facilities, and rely on tourists or limited trading of animals to survive.
Very Tea Party, that guy. But reporting gave me an excuse to go visit his family’s camel farm on my way home from Lansing one day:
To Hune, who raises Bactrian camels on his parents’ farm outside Fowlerville in Livingston County, the Zanesville incident was an outlier, a rare and random act by a mentally unstable individual. Not that he would deny animals can be dangerous – in 2004 his father, David, suffered a skull fracture when one of his son’s camels picked him up by the head as he worked nearby.
“It wasn’t an attack,” said the younger Hune. “He just wanted attention.” The incident left the elder Hune with a plate in his head, but that didn’t dampen the family’s enthusiasm for exotic livestock; four camels still live on the farm, along with ponies, donkeys and a few head of cattle David Hune raises for freezer beef.
Anyway, my point is: There are legit zoos and there are “Tiger King” zoos, and I bet even the ZAA wouldn’t want shit to do with that guy. Which brings me to my second anecdote, which happened years ago, when I was sent to write about a private zoo, with tigers, down in southern Ohio, around Logan. I took my friend Becky along for company on the drive and what the hell, how often do you get to spend a day at work visiting a tiger outfit.
This zoo, near Logan, was pretty much a dump, run by two guys who drank beer most of the day and messed around with their animals. I really don’t remember much, but I remember feeding time, which was terrifying. One guy came out with a bucket of meat and the other guy drew a large-caliber handgun and covered him.
“Is that necessary?” I squeaked.
“Oh yeah,” the other guy said. Dinnertime ended without serious incident, but it made me far more appreciative of the Columbus Zoo, where the big cats managed to be fed without Smith & Wesson getting involved.
Anyway, like I said, Joe Exotic, the titular star of “Tiger King,” was leagues beyond these guys — a narcissistic, half-nuts redneck who ran a private zoo in Oklahoma where he bred and sold tigers to terrible people and antagonized a particular animal-rescue sort named Carole Baskin, a feud that led to his downfall. My takeaway: Don’t pick a fight with a deep-pocketed woman married to a lawyer.
That’s really the TV Guide synopsis. It is so, so much weirder than that. I lack the energy right now to describe it, so I’ll defer to New York magazine:
Every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on what exactly the crimes are in this true-crime series, Tiger King throws you another curveball. Thought it was going to be about illegal animal breeding? Well it’s also about murder. But not the murder you thought! Well okay, yes, it is about the murder you thought, but it’s also about more murder. All of that seems like plenty for one series, right? Ha ha, there are also cults! And polygamy! And everyone has lions and tigers just lying around their homes, all the time! Tiger King is absolutely “good,” in that I watched all of it as quickly as possible, often with my jaw on the floor.
…There’s a whiff of class tourism here, not that different from shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — shows that treat their subjects like sideshow acts in a circus, where the circus is poverty. You feel okay watching this?
No, not entirely. But I did. It beat watching CNN.
Kate and I went for a much-needed bike ride today. The river was blue, the sky was blue, and it was warm for once. It felt very good. Of course, the information never stays at bay for long:
Have a good weekend, all. Stay separated.