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The Cult of Carole Baskin: How the “Tiger King” Affects Modern Zoos and Aquariums

While the Netflix series “The Tiger King” talks about the unpleasant rivalry between big cat facility owners, like “Blackfish” and “The Cove” before it, does have the potential to enable accredited zoological facilities to cave into activist demands.

By Jenna DeedyPublished 4 years ago 10 min read

The seven-part Netflix series “The Tiger King” was a true hit among the binge-watchers who were looking for something to take their mind off the “COVID-19 Pandemic. It also exploited the questionable animal welfare and business practices of the Tampa Bay-based Big Cat Rescue (BRC), which is a poorly-managed zoo that animal rights extremists have greenwashed as Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries-accredited sanctuary (Kroiss 2020).

After all, like many activist-owned sanctuaries, it has acquired some animals from accredited zoos, but fabricate stories about how the animals came to the facility by coming up with some story that is worthy of pulling on people’s heartstrings to the point where they decide to give them money thinking that they are helping this animal live out its life in freedom as opposed to life at a zoo because that is stopping what they claim is “animal abuse”, or was the facility a good zoo that caved into the demands of animal rights extremists because of some alliance with a radical movement with a hidden agenda?

Believe it, or not, there are zoological facilities that do believe that forming some sort of alliance with the animal rights movement because they think that working with them might help “improve” the lives of animals in their care, be more effective when it comes to establishing educational programs through community out-reach when in the end, such partnerships would do more harm than good.

If you still think that facilities need to partner-up with animal rights groups in all hopes of being able to make themselves look “good” in the “eyes of the public”, then allow me to explain why that is not a good idea.

AZA and Big Cat Rescue

In 2017, Jay Pratte, an employee at the Omaha Zoo, was believed that have arranged a collaboration between the Nebraska-based accredited facility and the sanctuary (Kroiss, 2020).

In the document, which was released by PETA in an attempt to spread false propaganda about Ringling Bros. & Bailey Circus’ animal collection, Pratte introduced himself as a consult on animal training, welfare and behavior for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the organization that gave the Omaha Zoo its accreditation status. He also claimed to have consulted on behalf of PETA, the Global Federation for Animal Sanctuaries(GFAS), and the Humane Society of the United States(HSUS).

GFAS serves as a “surrogate” for the HSUS and accredits activist-owned sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue that practice their standards.

These standards have resulted in very questionable animal welfare practices such as having bans on breeding programs for animals that live in family groups (Kroiss, 2020).

Ironically, the transport happened the same year Wayne Pacelle, CEO of HSUS at the time, was invited to speak at an AZA conference. During his appearance at the conference, Pacelle displayed images and videos of Big Cat Rescue while presenting them as an “animal welfare organization” even though it is part of the animal rights movement just like the Elephant Sanctuary, PAWS, Project Chimps, and other activist-owned facilities that openly oppose the keeping of animals in zoos and aquariums (Kroiss, 2020).

Yet, this did not stop the AZA, nor some of its members from collaborating with these organizations as they did under Dan Ashe when he first took on the role of its CEO.

This strategy of appeasing the anti-zoo crowd by removing certain species such as big cats, elephants, and cetaceans from well-managed facilities and send them to these unaccredited sanctuaries have not only dragged the AZA community into the Big Cat Rescue scandal, it also puts other modern facilities at risk as well.

Two Different Philosophies

A few years back, Carole Baskin, founder, and CEO of Big Cat Rescue took part in a live stream titled “Zoos Versus Sanctuaries”. During this particular stream, Baskin claimed that all zoos were in the “business” of having animals in “cages” while she and other activists were in the “business” of making “sure” there were “no more” animals living under the care of people for any given purpose. This gave the viewers who were hearing her podcast an idea that both she and her facility were completely against zoos (Kroli, 2020).

However, her statement on zoos is far from the truth at all; this is because of 21st-century zoo philosophy is focused on saving species through research, education, and outreach both locally and abroad.

Meanwhile, Big Cat Rescue keeps big cats in substandard habitats that would never, ever be acceptable in the eyes of all well-managed, modern, accredited, and certified zoos and aquariums.

When extremists take control of organizations that look out for modern facilities, the two philosophies can collide in a way that can hurt the facilities they claim to look out for and support. For example, there are zoos out there like the Pittsburg Zoo, that has it’s very own program that is aimed at improving the lives of elephants and other animals under their care. These programs often require keepers to have close contact with the animals as opposed to the standard protective contact protocol in which a keeper or a trainer is at a certain distance from the animal during training and husbandry sessions. With close contact, however, the keeper or trainer is enabled to not only be able to provide closer interactions and better relationships with their animals, but they also, have a better chance at being able to provide better care for them if God forbid, were to become ill, or injured.

Yet, activists who oppose close contact methods as an approach for animal care claim that it’s “abusive” even though trainers who use this method do use modern training techniques to help those animals feel comfortable, calm and trusting of their human caregivers when a session happens. At the same time, it is also a risky method that resulted in caregivers either getting killed or injured doing what they love since wild animals, even in the care of man, since animals are always going to maintain their wild instincts.

Such conflict between zoos and extremists is why several zoos that do practice close contact programs for their animals have left the AZA. Then, you have professionals from within the AZA that have come after these facilities by referring to them as “bad” zoos, when such facilities have been regarded as having some of the best husbandry programs in the nation and are accredited by other organizations that overlook the inner workings of well-managed zoos and aquariums.

If you still don’t believe that groups like PETA, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society(SSCS), and HSUS don’t have anti-zoo agendas, then, this would be the good time to look at their website and pull up any page that focuses on animals in human care, and there, you will not only find their “hidden” agenda, but you will also, get a good idea on what some of their tactics are on how to “rid” people of zoos and aquariums (Kroiss, 2020). By the way, almost all of it is just pure propaganda on their part. It consists of false information on how animal husbandry and care programs work, and so on, and an example of this is Big Cat Rescue’s so far, failed twenty-year plan to “eliminate” exotic cats from zoos.

The Case of Merlin Entertainment

Merlin Entertainment’s Sea Life Centers are well-known for their animal collections and facilities that are primarily located in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. However, it also has a partnership with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (formerly known as The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society”, a UK-based lobbying group that has long been known for its anti-zoo agenda, which includes it’s failed “Free Corky” campaigns of the ’90s and early 2000s (Dinley, 2013).

Anyway, in 2006, Merlin Entertainment developed a plan to convert a former dolphin habitat into a seal and otter facility at its Brighton, England facility; this particular facility was first bought by the company in 1991 and was involved in a doomed return-to-the-wild project that involved the facility’s two resident bottlenose dolphins after the company started to collaborate with animal rights extremists (Dinley, 2013).

Upon news of this particular plan, activists did not take the plans very well and made multiple attempts to prevent the facility from being built(Dinley, 2013). Yet, they were unaware that this was the same facility that it was once involved with the dolphin release project. Despite years of opposition, the seal habitat opened in 2019.

Keep in mind that despite having an anti-zoo stance on the keeping of cetaceans in human care, Merlin Entertainment continues to buy out facilities that display cetaceans by making claims about their plans to “rescue” the animals from their pool-based habitats by having them “released” to a “sanctuary” that they operate. However, so far, they only own one such facility in Iceland that houses two belugas from China that has been criticized for creating a double standard.

This, once again, shows that animal rights groups don’t make great collaborators with zoos and aquariums.

SeaWorld Paid The Price

In 2016, SeaWorld, which was then under the leadership of Joel Manby, announced its plans to end all killer whale breeding programs in favor of working with the HSUS (Kroiss, 2020). As a result, a controversial breeding ban that was funded and influenced by extremists with little-to-no expertise in killer whale husbandry and care. As a result, not only did they cancel their plans to expand killer whale habitats at all three SeaWorld parks, but it also resulted in loss of park attendance from people who started to believe that SeaWorld was no longer housing killer whales.

Around the same time, management tried to continue to cave to activist demands by putting more investment in roller coasters and other non-animal focused attractions (Kroiss, 2020). This is because they were very late into their response to Blackfish by choosing an ally in the HSUS and thus, enabling extremists to continue to gain control over the future of the SeaWorld parks.

Just recently, it’s last CEO Sergio D. Rivera, resigned from his post, due to disagreements over the board’s involvement in decision making when it came to the parks, which does include the animals that live at all three parks in Florida, Texas and California.

How to Overcome The Cult of Animal Rights Extremism

To be realistic here, boycotting the AZA, nor the facilities that are accredited by them is not the way to go. Many of these facilities are modern and do a lot of amazing work in research, wildlife rehabilitation, and conservation (Kroiss, 2020). It appears that they have been subjected to bad management who believe that working with extremists would be a trustworthy thing to do when it could potentially hurt them down the road.

The only way to show these facilities we care about them, their animals, and the people who care for them daily are to simply visit these facilities, support their animal programs, and share on social media why zoos and animal rights extremism is not a good mix.

It is also important to research the extremist groups that are constantly targeting modern facilities, slandering past and current employees, and look for any possibility that these groups might have ties to eco-terroristic groups. That way, you can better understand the situation between activists and zoos.

With all that being said, we can now only hope that no facility, nor organization fall into the demands of animal rights extremists.


Dinley, J. (2013). Zoological Collections and Animal-Rights. They do not make good bedfellows. Marine Animal Welfare.

J.Kroiss, P. (2020). Tiger King and AZA. Zoos Media .

wild animals

About the Creator

Jenna Deedy

Zoo and Aquarium Professional, Educator, Cosplayer, Writer and B.A. in Psychology whose got a lot to share when it comes to animals, zoos, aquariums, conservation, and more.

Instagram: @jennacostadeedy

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