I'm A Real Tiger Keeper. Here's What Disturbed Me About 'Tiger King.'

A female Amur tiger at the zoo where the author works. It's estimated that only 350-450 Amur tigers survive in the wild. (Photo: Courtesy of Megan Turner)

I’ve worked as an animal caretaker at a renowned, AZA-accredited organization for over a decade now. It’s a unique job, and every day is different, but even in my world, it’s a weird time to be a tiger keeper.

I guess you might say that it’s never not a weird time to be a tiger keeper, but here in the age of COVID-19 and “Tiger King,” I find it especially odd. 

The pandemic started to spread before I saw the Netflix documentary. When the mayor of our city issued a “shelter in place” order, the zoo that I work at closed to the public. For years, I’ve explained that I work in a 365-day a year occupation to kids by saying, “You don’t skip feeding your dog on Christmas, right?” Meaning just because the zoo is closed, keepers still need to come in. 

The first morning of working in the closed zoo felt peaceful. I’m used to quieter days in the winter, but even then, the zoo functions like a small city, with various employees cleaning grounds, fixing infrastructure, hustling this way and that. The lockdown feels different.

Only “essential” staff are present, and carnivore keepers like myself typically work solo as a safety precaution. Sometimes I spend my entire shift without seeing another person. There’s a calmness in the solitude. It’s just me and the cats.

Outside, the world brimmed with a sense of impending doom, with rising coronavirus case counts and what seemed negative news 24 hours a day. Within the zoo’s walls, I pushed the anxiety out and focused on the gentle chuffs of our tigers. 

The zoo is not immune to the workings of the outside world, and as COVID-19 escalated, things changed within it. Our department split into two teams, and our weekends rotated, with each team now working half of the week.

In theory, if one team becomes exposed to the virus, the other team could still function and step in. After all, you don’t skip feeding your tiger just because there’s a terrifying global pandemic, right? 

It was painful to watch Joe’s rowdy staff call themselves 'keepers,' diminishing the occupation at a time when caretakers of all kinds are called upon to demonstrate extreme dedication to their particular cause.

Shortly after we split our routine, the texts started. 

“Have you seen ‘Tiger King’?” friends asked as seemingly all of America binged the new docuseries. 

The show tells the story of Joe Exotic and his uncouth roadside attraction contemporaries who own large exotic animals, like tigers. 

I hadn’t seen it.

As many of my friends joked about working from home in their sweatpants and as comedians hosted late-night shows from their bathtubs, my job seemed to become even more intense. Despite what Joe preaches, wild animals are not pets, so I can’t exactly take my work home with me.

While on the job, I’ve been busy, to say the least, averaging 15,000 to 20,000 steps a shift lately. My co-workers and I maintain the animals’  habitats and make sure everyone has healthy diets, fresh water and plenty of enriching objects, foods and activities. Though the zoo’s pathways are vacant, our standards of care remain the same. 

What we do at the zoo does not compare to the front-line work of health care, housekeeping, first responder and sanitation workers during the age of COVID-19. These individuals truly are heroes. Nonetheless, I am leaving my home every morning ― the only place I deem genuinely safe ― and going out into an increasingly perilous world.

At work, I inevitably cross paths with maintenance workers or horticulture staff from time to time, and it isn’t always possible to maintain a six-foot distance. Then, of course, there is the shift change between teams. Before I leave my building on my “Friday,” I wipe down everything I can with diluted bleach. I wipe door handles, locks, broom handles, countertops, the desk and keyboard, hose bibs and sink nozzles. But it still seems impossible to sanitize everything. It never really feels like enough. 

When I get home from work each day, I go straight into my basement, where I am lucky enough to have a shower.  I leave my zoo clothes downstairs, wipe my phone down with alcohol, shower and wash my hair before relieving my now teach-at-home husband from caring for our young son. 

This is all to say, I’m not exactly in the position for a quarantine-TV binge.  

Still, the texts kept coming. 

“What do you think of ‘Tiger King’?”

In an effort to have an opinion to offer, I finally squeezed the show into my nightly meal-prep/dishwashing routine. 

So, here’s what I think.

The animal abuse was appalling. Seeing Joe Exotic tear tiger cubs, only minutes old, away from their mother so that they could become props in his “cub petting” scheme is not a scene I will quickly forget.  

But there was something else about “Tiger King” that bothered me. Something more subtle than the overt abuse and general craziness.  

There’s a scene when Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin offhandedly remarks, “Oh, I don’t pay animal caretakers, people will do that stuff for free.”  

I took a pause, hearing this, as I peanut-buttered my sandwich to prepare for work the next day. I was prepping to leave my safe space, potentially risking the safety of my family, to care for the zoo’s animals. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My co-workers  and I are determined to guide the animals in our care through this uncertain era, no matter what comes of it. 

Whether it’s a wet market in China or people like Joe Exotic and his friends illegally trading and breeding wildlife in our own backyard, the way we treat wildlife matters. We’re seeing the dire consequences of this right now.

Most animal caretakers have four-year degrees, or even graduate degrees,  and years of experience. We are working in two teams precisely because of the skill and expertise our job requires. If we all become sick with the novel coronavirus, the average (pardon the pun) Joe will not be able to step in and safely fill our shoes, despite Baskin’s claim that anyone could and would “just do that stuff for free.”

It was painful to watch Joe’s rowdy staff call themselves “keepers,” diminishing the occupation at a time when caretakers of all kinds are called upon to demonstrate extreme dedication to their particular cause.  

As these weeks of sheltering in place have gone by, the weather has warmed up. More trees have budded out. The forsythia bloomed. There’s a muted murmur in the air — the spring chorus of American toads — adding an otherworldliness to the zoo’s vacant pathways. But the quiet no longer seems peaceful to me. It seems eerie.

I miss the energy ― the laughter and joy bubbling from families visiting the zoo, now unnervingly gone. I miss the chance to connect with guests and talk to them about what our zoo is all about ― the conservation and welfare of the diverse species, including tigers, in our care. I may not have always recognized it, but now it’s obvious: The visitors are an essential component of the zoo, too.  

As we continue to be locked in our homes and to distance ourselves from friends and family and co-workers, many people have looked for the source of this pandemic. I have seen bats blamed for the coronavirus. Or pangolins. I’ve even heard snakes are at fault. But really, we humans are the ones to blame.

The intersection of humans, animals and the environment creates the One Health approach to disease control, and, let’s be honest, as a society, we’re kind of failing at it. Whether it’s a wet market in China or people like Joe Exotic and his friends illegally trading and breeding wildlife in our own backyard, the way we treat wildlife matters. We’re seeing the dire consequences of this right now.  

It’s hard not to watch “Tiger King.” Everyone is talking about it and, while we patiently quarantine, no one really has any other plans. So, why not indulge in staring at the train wreck? But remember that for every Joe Exotic, there are hundreds of dedicated keepers leaving the safety of their homes and heading out into the pandemic to care for these remarkable animals in real and positive ways.  

And when all of this is over, this tiger keeper, for one, can’t wait to welcome guests back to the zoo. None of us knows what a post-pandemic world will look like. But I sure hope that there will be a bright future for both humans and tigers.  

Carolyn Mueller Kelly is a keeper at an AZA-accredited U.S. zoo with more than a decade of experience in animal care. Aside from her work with lions, tigers and bears, she loves to spend her time writing.

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