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Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Elisa Allen of PETA says it’s time to acknowledge the cruelty behind the keeping of ‘exotic’ animals in captivity.

BACK AT THE start of this year, who could have predicted that under a nationwide lockdown amid a global pandemic, a lurid Netflix docuseries called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness would be one of our main sources of distraction?

The series follows notorious big-cat owner and exhibitor Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic. As one TV reporter says of the show, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.” The documentary has been a huge hit and is set to become a TV series.

For all its absurdity, it has shone a light on the exploitation of big cats in captivity – in particular, the recent phenomenon of breeding tiger cubs for photo ops and other “novelty” experiences.

joe-exotic-the-tiger-king SIPA USA / PA Images Joe Maldonado, 'Joe Exotic' works with Boco, the male Li-Liger at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 in Oklahoma. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The cub-petting industry tears baby cubs, some only hours old, from their loving mothers so that they can be used as photo props or playthings by paying customers. These cubs are mostly killed in crude ways – sometimes in gas chambers, sometimes by hitting them over the head with a hammer – when they reach three months of age and become too big and dangerous to be used for human interactions.

Joe was embroiled with this industry, selling and trafficking big cats. Part of his current sentence includes four years for 17 wildlife charges, including the killing of five tigers by shooting them in the head, to make room for smaller cats. In this industry, mature big cats who aren’t killed are confined to a cage for the rest of their lives and may be used for breeding to perpetuate the cycle of cruelty.

The battle to stop the trade

PETA US has been working for years to stop exotic animal traders like Joe. In addition to lobbying for changes to US state and federal laws – which typically do little to protect animals from the suffering inherent in captivity – the group is actively removing these animals from the hands of criminals.

To date, the group has rescued 39 big cats who were in Joe’s prisons, all of whom are currently at reputable sanctuaries where they can have some semblance of the life they’ve been denied for so long.

Much more still needs to be done – including in Ireland, where it’s perfectly legal for people to keep big cats such as tigers and lions in their homes as “pets”. While you need a licence to have a dog, alarmingly, there’s no such requirement for keeping exotic animals.

lemur ISPCA Ring-tailed Lemur seized by the ISPCA ISPCA

Although some people may have good intentions when they choose to keep exotic animals, no human home can ever come close to replicating a wild animal’s natural habitat. Suffering is a given for captive big cats, even in licensed institutions such as zoos, whose cramped enclosures are a far cry from the large territories these animals would roam in their natural habitats.

The stress of captivity can cause tigers to lose their minds – many will pace incessantly in an effort to cope, and some even attempt to make a break for it. Countless tigers around the world have lashed out, injuring or killing their captors. 

Exotic pets in Ireland

Ireland’s ISPCA says several exotic pets have been abandoned or removed by its teams in recent years, due to cruelty and mistreatment. They include:

Horsefield and Hermann Tortoise


Red eared and yellow bellied Terrapins




Corn Snake


Royal Python Snake




Green Iguana


African Parrot


Ring-tailed Lemur


Fire Salamanders








Natter jack Toad


According to the ISPCA, licenses are not required in Ireland and there is no Dangerous Wild Animal legislation in this country. It says while you must have a licence to keep a dog in Ireland, which means that legally you can keep any exotic species if you can source the animals.  The group – and many other animal protection groups, including PETA and Born Free – says some animals such as primates (e.g. marmosets) should never be kept as pets due to their complex social needs.

salamander ISPCA A salamander in the care of the ISPCA. ISPCA

The ISPCA also echoes that legislation needs to be introduced in Ireland to restrict the type and species of exotic animals that can be kept as pets or kept in a domestic environment, based on their welfare needs and that the risk to public health from certain species like venomous snakes should be considered.

Some species are more likely to escape or be deliberately released, so risks to the environment should be taken into account, according to the ISPCA. As it stands, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for enforcing this legislation in Ireland through the National Parks and Wildlife Service, but the ISPCA and others believe more should be done to regulate this area.

ISPCA CEO Dr Andrew Kelly says, “The ISPCA believes that legislation is urgently required to restrict the species that can be kept, bred or sold in Ireland, based on their welfare needs, risk to the public and risk to the environment if they escape.”

The conservation myth

Contrary to what zoos and breeders would have us believe, breeding wild animals in captivity – even endangered species such as tigers – does nothing to prevent species extinction.

Anyone who is genuinely interested in helping endangered species – as opposed to sentencing more sentient individuals to a life behind bars – can support programmes that target the root cause of the endangerment and extinction of animals all over the world: habitat destruction. What’s the point in breeding more animals if they have no habitat to be released into? 

All animals – humans included – long for freedom. For weeks now, we’ve been confined to our homes, and while it might sometimes feel like the walls are closing in, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel for us.

For the big cats in back gardens and zoos, a cage is all they’ll ever know – and Irish legislators must take urgent action to prevent exotic animals from suffering as “pets”.

If the public takes just one lesson from Tiger King, let it be this: never visit any facility where wild animals are treated like prisoners or sideshows rather than the majestic, sensitive individuals they truly are.

Elisa Allen is director of Peta UK.

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