“Tiger King:” Animal Abuse or Risk to Others in the World of Covid19?

As the month of April churns on, Americans remain in a defensive crouch to try and beat back the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) that has disrupted the personal and economic lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. The response to the virus has come in stages. At first it was a distant phenomenon with no obvious implications for American life. Like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the early 2000s, the H1N1 (Swine Flu) in 2009, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) around 2012, and several other contagious respiratory illnesses, many Americans looked upon COVID-19 as a disease that happened “out there,” beyond U.S. borders and beyond the confines of American life.

In this case, though, that view was wrong. In December 2019 China alerted the World Health Organization that it was grappling with a new illness; in January 2020, Chinese officials reported the first death of a person from COVID-19. [1] (Although China has earned much praise for its aggressive and data-driven response to COVID-19 and its willingness to cooperate with the international community in disclosing the extent of its spread, some have questioned whether the country – which has a history of sanitizing reporting that makes the regime look bad – has been fully transparent. [2] Thus, the coronavirus could have been observed in China, and claiming lives, even earlier than this.)

Later in January a man in the United States – who had traveled to the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was detected – fell ill with the virus. Three other Asian countries announced confirmed cases, too. [3] It was clear that the virus had reached beyond China; the question was whether it was limited to isolated cases. Around this time, health experts were beginning to fear that people with minor symptoms or who were entirely asymptomatic might be able to infect others. [4] The current guidelines are that people remain potential disease vectors for 14 days after the end of symptoms, but other reporting indicates that the “cooling-off” period should be even longer. [5]

News broke this week that, in late January, at least one top White House official was warning about the catastrophic effects of a slow response to COVID-19. [6] Indeed, at a time when most Americans maintained an “it’s out there” attitude about the illness, key federal officials also downplayed the potential harm of the virus. [7] By late February the state of Washington had the first outbreak in the country, and in early March state officials began limiting large gatherings. [8] Leaders in other “blue states,” including California and Nevada, followed suit with increasing measures to staunch the spread of COVID-19:

  • First, practicing proper hygiene and safe social distancing methods.
  • Limiting large crowds
  • Then closing schools (or extending Spring Break)
  • Ordering “nonessential” businesses closed (a matter of some controversy given the vagueness of the term)
  • Finally, issuing overarching “shelter in place” orders to discourage all unnecessary trips outside the home

At this time, 41 states have “shelter in place” orders; [9] although the federal government has withheld from issuing one of its own, federal officials have made clear that the best thing for Americans to do is avoid unnecessary outings. As we collectively “ride it out” at home, Americans have begun to experience something lost to decades of cable-TV balkanization: we are starting to watch some of the same shows.

From Walter Cronkite to Joe Exotic

Fifty years ago, Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America” as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Tens of millions of Americans tuned in each evening to hear Cronkite deliver the day’s news and explain the implications of troubling events at home and around the world. In the years since, especially given the rise of cable news and the “cord-cutting” habits of younger Americans, the country’s media diet has substantially diversified. That has its benefits, but it has also eroded our common sense of a unified reality. Today, many wonder whether Americans living on opposite sides of the nation’s political dividing lines are even experiencing the same world in practical terms.

One surprising outcome of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has pushed Americans closer to a shared media experience. Tens of millions of Americans are again crowded around screens to hear from one man – but it’s not Walter Cronkite; it’s Joe Exotic, the central character in the documentary “Tiger King.” [10] The documentary is a multi-part look at the colorful characters in the world of raising big cats and other exotic animals and includes more than its share of intrigue. It is the consummate guilty pleasure, and its cultural relevance has skyrocketed at a moment when Americans are craving escape and a non-virulent form of common ground. [11]

Similar to a previous article we wrote about Wayne Newton’s Monkey, this story has a Las Vegas connection involving exotic pets: Joe Exotic’s co-investor, Jeff Lowe, used to call Las Vegas home. Lowe reportedly held lavish parties inside Strip casinos where he would smuggle in tiger cubs for guests to cuddle and pose with; while some may question whether this is animal abuse, there’s no doubt that wild animals are just that, wild animals, and no matter the size, they have the capacity to bite people, and like Newton’s monkey, could potentially spread disease to injured victims. Lowe was eventually convicted for operating a business without a license, and he failed to appear at post-conviction court hearings. A warrant is now out for his arrest in Clark County, and observers speculate that the one-time Vegas high-roller is now a fixture of the exotic-animal zoo he co-owns in rural Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the exotic cats he brought to southern Nevada have found a new home in the small town of Pahrump, about an hour north of Las Vegas. [12]

[1] https://abcnews.go.com/Health/timeline-coronavirus-started/story?id=69435180

[2] https://time.com/5813628/china-coronavirus-statistics-wuhan

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/06/803274426/hong-kong-mandates-quarantine-for-mainland-arrivals-coronavirus-cases-surpass-28

[5] https://revealnews.org/article/is-14-days-enough

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/politics/navarro-warning-trump-coronavirus.html

[7] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/17/how-trump-shifted-his-tone-on-coronavirus-134246

[8] https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/gov-inslee-to-restrict-gatherings-of-more-than-250-people-including-sports-and-concerts

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/sergeiklebnikov/2020/04/04/here-are-the-9-state-governors-who-have-refused-to-issue-stay-at-home-orders/#2f2fc9f94eeb

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Exotic

[11] https://www.businessinsider.com/tiger-king-netflix-most-popular-title-for-2-straight-weeks-2020-4

[12] https://www.ktnv.com/13-investigates/animals-confiscated-from-tiger-kings-jeff-lowe-still-living-in-southern-nevada

Image Credit by Swapnisha Joshi

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