‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ and Tigers of SoCal ☆☆☆

Animal hoarders are often animal rescuers gone wrong. I think that applies to people who handle tigers, now brought to light by the Netflix documentary limited series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”  You might not recall, but Southern California had a few tiger incidents, too.

In 2003, a morning raid in Riverside County found 90 dead tigers, including 58 tiger cubs in freezers. That wasn’t all they found at the 60-year-old John Weinhart‘s Tiger Rescue near Colton. That raid made national news with the Chicago Tribune (via the sister newspaper the Los Angeles Times) reporting that Weinhart was charged with “unlawful public display of tigers, breeding without a permit, failure to clean animal cages and supplying the animals with insufficient food and water.”

At the time a representative of the Humane Society of the United States warned there were more.

Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said there has been an increase in the number of tigers being raised for the exotic pet trade under the guise of a rescue facility.

“We call them pseudo-sanctuaries,” he said. “They’re primarily engaged in commercial activities while passing themselves off as a non-profit.”

In 2005, Weinhart was sentenced to two years in county jail (with credit for 204 days already served) and five years of probation. His wife, Marla Jean Smith, pled guilty to 63 counts of animal cruelty and child endangerment in January of 2005.

One of the tigers was involved in an incident at the Shambala Preserve in Action in 2007. 

More recently, a Bengal-Siberian mix tiger cub found wandering around Hemet in September of 2015, was named Himmel and taken to the Alpine facility, Lions, Tigers & Bears, but died in mid-January of 2016 following a routine hernia and neuter surgery. The cub was estimated to be about six months old. According to an article in The Press-Enterprise ( 9 September 2015):

It’s illegal for anyone to import, transport, sell or keep a tiger in California without a license, which is usually only given to accredited zoos and sanctuaries.

The Southern California connection with big cats isn’t so recent. The Golden Globe winning Tippi Hedren (“The Birds”) was one of those impulsive rich people who, with her then-husband, Noel Marshall (producer of “The Exorcist”), bought a lion, Neil,  and lived with it on their family ranch.

The couple made and released a 1981  film, “Roar.” The film began shooting in 1976 and took about five years to finish and starred a naturalist (Marshall) who lives in an African nature preserve,  Africa with lions, tigers (not an African species) and other dangerous big cats. When his wife, Madeleine (Hedren) and kids (Melanie Griffith and John and Jerry Marshall) visit both the animals and the people supporting the preserve become threats.

By 1979, the couple had accumulated  quite a collection of exotic animals as they struggled to finish what would become known as the most dangerous movie ever made:

To house the big cats, Marshall and Hedren purchased a ranch north of Los Angeles, eventually owning two jaguars, two elephants, four leopards, four cranes, seven flamingos, nine black panthers, ten pumas, 26 tigers, 71 lions, and a tigon (lion-tiger hybrid). The only animal that Tippi and Noel turned down was a hippo.

After Marshall and Hedren divorced, Hedren founded The Roar Foundation in 1983 and re-purposed the ranch, now called Shambala, to become a sanctuary for rescued big cats.

The tale of Joe Exotic is fascinating tale of low-rent showmanship. The sense that big cats are an aphrodisiac to some of the people who want to rescue them and other people who are desperate to be involved somehow, even if it means becoming involved in volunteer works that borders on abusive and even sexual servitude.

Keep in mind that Joe Exotic’s big cat park Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (aka GW Zoo) in Wynnewood, Oklahoma was not an accredited zoo nor is Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue Corp. Neither is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Just when you thought the hoopla was over, Baskin appeared on season 29 of “Dancing with the Stars.” Baskin was the second star eliminated.

Despite the sensationalism of the series, there’s a lot to be learned that can be applied to other animal rescues, including ones that focus on more ordinary animals such as dogs and cats.

  1. How are the volunteers treated?
  2. How are the volunteers compensated?
  3. Who or what kind of people volunteer?
  4. How does the actual animal experts perceive the leadership?
  5. How ethical is the rescue?

Big Cat Rescue has also been criticized for the extensive volunteer staff. “Big Cat Rescue’s heavy reliance on volunteers is controversial, even among those in the animal-care community” noted an Insider article.

“Volunteers are vital to nonprofits, but I do have issues with the way Carole uses them exclusively,” Jake Belair, an animal keeper at the Nashville Zoo, told Insider in an email. “Most of us in the animal care field have a four-year degree and years of practical experience. Animals deserve expert care, not free care.”

Tyus Williams, a carnivore ecologist, said that while volunteering is laudable, relying exclusively on volunteers excludes those with less financial freedom from participating.

This is not has bad as the volunteers who seem to become part of a harem of the pseudo “Doc” of the The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, (T.I.G.E.R.S.), and the pandemic did hit Big Cat Rescue according to an Insider article:

While the sanctuary had to cut about half of its paid staff during the pandemic, Baskin said, it is hoping to rehire them after the crisis. Carole Baskin and her husband, Howard, are not taking a paycheck during the pandemic, she said.

Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle of Myrtle Beach disputes his portrayal in Netflix’s “Tiger King.”


Episode 1: Not Your Average Joe

Meet Joe Exotic, the gun-toting operator of the an Oklahoma big cat park. He’s been accused of hiring someone to murder his chief rival, Carole Baskin. 

Episode 2: Cult of Personality

Subjected to long hours, little (or no) pay and the whims of eccentric bosses, are big cat park employees just dogs in a web of personality cults?

Episode 3: The Secret

An incident in Carole’s past casts her in a suspicious light, and while she maintains her innocence, Joe is all too happy to point the finger at her.

Episode 4: Playing with Fire

Joe ramps up his efforts to become an Internet and TV star, but a mysterious fire and lawsuits threaten his plans–until an angel investor appears. 

Episode 5: Make America Exotic Again

As Joe dives into politics, he deals with turmoil and tragedy in his personal life. Meanwhile, the dynamics at the park change with the new owners.

Episode 6: The Noble Thing to Do

James Garretson makes a shocking claim about Joe, leading to FBI involvement. Desperation sets in for Joe, who thinks Jeff and James set him up. 

Episode 7: Dethroned

Joe faces the music in the courtroom but inside the story is far fro over. Jeff’s business prospects crumble. Former G.W. Zoo workers try to move on. 

Episode 8: The Tiger King and I

In this after show, Joel McHale talks with Jeff, Saff, Eric and more to get their reactions to the series, their portrayals and their new fame.

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” was released 20 March 2020, the week that the pandemic restrictions were enforced in Los Angeles. The documentary limited series has inspired other limited series and there are films in the works, likely all somewhat stalled by the on-going pandemic measures.

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