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Why We Can’t Release Joe Exotic’s Tigers – or Any Captive Tigers in America – Into the Wild

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Now that you’ve (probably) seen Tiger King, you probably have many questions. And sure, with doozies like ‘did Carole kill her husband,’ and ‘are the people at Doc Antle’s instructed to drink Kool-Aid should the feds show up,’ and ‘how are there so many people in the world enamored with baby tigers,’ floating around in your mind, you might not have gotten to them all.

Once you do, though, you’ll remember a totally wild quote from the series – that the captive tiger population in the US is double the wild tiger population around the world – and then you’ll wonder this: why can’t we rescue all of these tigers and send the healthy, capable ones back to the wild, where they’re dying out?

Zoologists and conservationists don’t see releasing Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, or Carole Baskin’s tigers back into the wild as a viable option, though, for several reasons.

The first is that the tigers have been bred across subspecies lines, and there’s no way to know how the hybridized tigers would adapt into different tiger populations around the world. Wild tigers live in a wide range of climates – from the tropics to the sub-zero days in Russia, and their size, coat color, and coat thickness all play an important role in their ability to survive. Exotic’s “generic” tigers could be too hot in a jungle or too cold in Siberia.

And while genetic diversity can be a good thing in some species if they’re hoping to adapt to climate change or disease, the truth is that Exotic’s captive animals could also be inbred, which could cause even more medical issues. Captive white tigers are a perfect example – they’ve been inbred to ensure white offspring – and almost all of them suffer the consequences.

The second issue is that while captive tigers do possess the instinct to kill, they’ve never learned how to find, stalk, trap, and kill prey in the wild. It takes competent tiger mothers a year to show their offspring all that they know, ensuring they have a good shot at surviving on their own, and any tiger would have to be adequately trained before being released – and even then, they may not be good enough predators to survive in the wild.

Last, captive tigers like the ones reared by Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and the like are hand-reared, using close human contact from birth to erase their innate fear of human beings. This becomes a problem in the wild, where tigers associate human beings with food, and therefore don’t avoid their homes and villages the way a wild tiger would out of instinct.

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Tigers that were bred and raised in captivity would be more likely to kill people and livestock if released into wild populations.

Experts do say that the relative ease of breeding tigers in captivity could be good news for the species – if it’s done right, tigers bred and trained in captivity could be viable for release into wild populations.

The ‘Tiger King’ tigers, though, are a lost cause.

And if you think about that too much, the documentary becomes a lot less entertaining and a whole lot more depressing.

If you ask me.