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Criminal Justice Professor Targets Wildlife, Ethics Questions in ‘Tiger King’

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Among the millions of people tuning into Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” docuseries under COVID-19 “stay-at-home” orders is Jarret Lovell, a Cal State Fullerton professor of criminal justice who teaches “Animals, Law and Society.”

The show follows a group of people who own and breed lions and tigers, including big cat collector Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage or “Joe Exotic.” Since the show debuted on March 20, Lovell has received several questions regarding wildlife and ethics.

His upper-division criminal justice class covers such topics as the behavioral and legal complexities of human-animal relationships, individual and institutional harms to animals, the link between animal abuse and criminal violence, humane law enforcement and the challenge of securing justice for animals.

In addition, Lovell often leads a study abroad program to South Africa, during which students learn about human-wildlife conflicts while participating in service-learning at a lion sanctuary. This year’s trip has been canceled amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Why is posing with and petting tigers considered cruelty to animals?

When we interact with wildlife in this way, we expect the animals to adapt to the interests of humans. True conservation work calls on humans to adapt to and respect the needs of wildlife. So while on the surface these behaviors may seem harmless, we must remember that even when born in captivity, the “wild” nature of animals makes them unaccustomed to human interaction. In “Tiger King,” it was common to see tourists holding cubs. The reason is that the animals are so young that their true dispositions have yet to develop. Quite simply, we need to respect the nature of wildlife and treat them as beings, not as props or things.

What did “Tiger King” fail to discuss with regard to the ethics of wildlife conservation?

I don’t recall the documentary seriously discussing the true nature of tigers in their natural habitat, or questioning whether their needs and interests were being met by Joe Exotic. At no point do I recall experts on animal behavior brought into the discussion. Being a wildlife collector or hobbyist does not make one an expert on tigers. The program fails to make the case that animals are sentient beings with intrinsic value apart from what they provide humans. Animals are more than entertainment or companionship for humans. True conservation work entails addressing the nature and interests of wildlife, not humans.

What does the “Tiger King” reveal about human relationships?

Too often, our negative relationships with animals mirror our negative relationships with humans. Throughout the program, we see women and lovers treated as things or props just like the tigers they tend. As audience members, we also find ourselves sitting in judgment of how others treat animals. Rarely do we question our own use of animals for entertainment or amusement. One person’s tiger park is another person’s horse track.

How can people tell the difference between a true wildlife sanctuary and one that exploits wildlife?

Because the term “sanctuary” is not regulated, people should first question whether the animals at a facility are treated in a manner that respects the true nature of the animals being housed. Are animals being used for purposes not natural to them, such as posing for staged photos and being routinely handled by humans? Second, are animals being bred in captivity? Breeding is a strong indication that something is amiss, since it is unethical to purposely raise wild animals in captivity, and it is usually for profit. Finally, people can check with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to learn more about the term “sanctuary” and to see if a facility is accredited.

Contact: Lynn Juliano,