We've been in quarantine for about a month now. I don't know about you, but I've gotten a bit bored. Thankfully, we are blessed to live in the digital age, where millions of hours of entertainment are just a couple of clicks away. But one Netflix show has dominated national discussions more than anything else of late: Tiger King. The absolutely bonkers docuseries about private zoos in America is one of the craziest things I've ever watched. But what is the show's morality, and how should we approach it as Catholics?
I want to start this off by stating very clearly that I am not recommending that you watch Tiger King. On the contrary, this show is clearly for mature audiences only and deals with intense and sometimes disturbing subject matter. With that being said, I'll explain the general concept and some plot points (SPOILER WARNING) for those of you who aren't familiar. Then, we'll take a look at a Catholic perspective and some moral questions.
For those who haven't seen the show, Tiger King centers around Joe Exotic, a larger-than-life private zoo owner in Oklahoma who could not be more eccentric. The general plot follows his zoo's rise, financial troubles, and eventual closing. We know from the beginning that Joe is currently serving a 20+ year jail sentence for his involvement in a murder-for-hire plot, and the show ramps towards his arrest and conviction in the final episodes.
Joe is far from the show's only wacky character. There's Dr. Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, the polygamist Doctor of Mystical Science who runs Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. Not weird enough? Take Jeff Lowe, the wealthy conman who ends up running Joe Exotic's zoo after his conviction (and is suspected by some of setting him up). That's not even touching on Carole Baskin, the animal rights activist and owner of a "Big Cat Sanctuary" that some say is no different from the zoos she decries.
All of these people clearly have eccentricities, oddities, and characteristics that are easy to make fun of. Netflix knows this, and plays them up to the max. To film a show like this, you need thousands of hours of interviews and candid footage. But, in a move that is clearly aimed at upping the "wacky" factor and increasing viewership, Netflix has edited that footage to focus on the craziest moments and aspects of these people. This isn't to say the weirdness isn't there, but it's important to keep in mind that this is a show that needs to entertain people in order to gain viewers.
So sure, they are flawed. Everyone I just mentioned has done bad things, that's pretty clear from the show. Something else that the show touches on, however, is the difficulties that all of these people have faced in their lives. From physical trauma to deep and painful family issues to the sudden deaths of loved ones, almost every single person in the show has had a really rough go of it at some point.
This carries over into minor characters as well. Many of Joe Exotic's zoo workers are people who just got out of prison, the formerly homeless, or those who just had nowhere else to go. This line of work clearly brings together people who have difficult pasts, and that's important to keep in mind. While these people may be wild, weird, and even criminal in some cases, many of them have had extremely hard lives, and God is their judge (not us).
There's also the question of the morality of the zoos themselves. One of the central questions of the show is whether or not having these tigers, lions, hippos, and other exotic animals in cages is inhumane or not. It's the reason Carole Baskin tries so hard to tear down Joe Exotic, which in turn leads him to vilify her all over the Internet and allegedly hatch a plan to inflict serious violence on her. But those are their consciences. What about ours? Can we condone these zoos and the keeping of these animals?
The Catholic morality of zoos has actually been addressed by multiple popes. Pope Pius XI wrote that mankind has the right to privately own nature and animals (to a degree), and Pope John XXIII spoke about the biblical decree from God to "fill the earth and subdue it." They would both seem to condone the housing of animals in zoos for educational purposes, at the very least.
However, the Catechism (basically the no-frills rundown of the Church's doctrinal teaching on a given issue) speaks of animals as God's Creations, too. "Animals are God's creatures...thus men owe them kindness...it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly." These two elements seem to form a single teaching: zoos that treat animals with compassion and dignity are okay, but harming or killing an animal needlessly is a sin against God's Creation.
Let's apply that to the zoos featured in Tiger King. The show does a good job at not showing overt animal cruelty, likely knowing that seeing it would drive many viewers away, but it is certainly implied. There are stories told about tigers being used as a status symbol, sickly or old animals being killed when they are no longer profitable, and poor living conditions for the animals on a day-to-day basis. This is clearly, unequivocally, wrong.
This leads us to the conclusion that while having zoos and housing animals for educational and care purposes is morally acceptable, the mistreatment of animals (both overt and implied) at some zoos featured in the show cannot be condoned. So we have a cast of semi-sympathetic characters who do bad things, zoos that are acceptable in principle but fail to care for their animals properly, and more twists and turns than I can count. Where does that leave us?
I wrote one of these blog posts a while back about how important it is for Catholics to be able to critically view and appreciate secular media, and I think this is a fantastic example. We can watch this show, marvel at some of its crazy twists and turns, and still question its morality. We can hate the sins of the characters, especially those of violence towards animals and each other, and still love the sinners as Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
I think it's vital for us to be able to have these discussions with each other and the world. This is an incredibly popular piece of media that has captured the world's attention and has everyone talking. It may be somewhat controversial, but it's important that we have the ability to speak on these things from a place of faith and morality.
I hope that you're finding interesting things to fill your time with during quarantine. I'd love to hear about them! Feel free to shoot me an email or comment on our Facebook post telling me some of what you've been up to. I pray that you and yours are safe and healthy, and I look forward to getting to see all of you again.