A Firsthand Look at the Tiger King and Private Ownership

April 3, 2020

Chimpanzee in the wild

Written By

Stephen Ross, Ph.D.

Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes 

Joe Exotic stood in the doorway to the gift shop at GW Zoo, blocking the entrance and directing toward me a long, skeptical stare from underneath his fringed cowboy hat. We stood like that for what seemed like an eternity in the baking Oklahoma heat until he finally muttered, “So you’re the chimp guy, eh?”

That was the summer of 2009 and I had indeed traveled to Wynnewood, Oklahoma, to meet with Joe Exotic to discuss chimpanzees—specifically, the four chimpanzees at his unaccredited zoo: Beau, Bongo, Joe, and Lilly. Though Joe Exotic was certainly an interesting character, he was far from the only eccentric I had met as part of a three-year cross-country chimpanzee census known as Project ChimpCARE. The project, funded by a grant from the Arcus Foundation, sought to identify all the chimpanzees living across the United States (there were more than 2,000 at that time) and, when possible, find ways to improve their lives.

At that time, Joe was well-known locally, but other than animal advocates, few were aware of his extensive and questionable commercial wildlife activities; he was far from the national buzzword he is today thanks to global binge-watching of the online docuseries Tiger King. His four chimpanzees lived in two separate pairs in simplistic wire-mesh cages, and the day I visited them, the roadside zoo was packed with visitors that mostly ignored them as they made their way to see the big cats that were the main attraction. Toward the end of the day, I watched as the chimps desperately pulled scraps of cardboard and orange peels around them in a circle—an attempt to satisfy their nest-building instincts.

Like so many other chimpanzees that I had visited during the census, these chimpanzees were not provided the physical or social environments they needed to thrive. Chimpanzees are an incredibly resilient and adaptable species, and as such, are cursed with the ability to survive very challenging circumstances. But to truly thrive, chimpanzees need a rich, dynamic, and challenging environment. And the more I traveled around the country—finding these chimpanzees housed as pets, performers, and at unaccredited roadside attractions—the more I saw that hundreds of chimpanzees were living in conditions that simply did not give them the chance to express their true chimpanzee selves.

Project ChimpCARE started as a census to simply record how many chimpanzees were out there and how they were being managed (we still keep that census effort active, and you can see the location of all the chimpanzees at chimpcare.org). However, the initiative inevitably grew to play a facilitating role in helping persuade private owners to give their chimpanzees a second chance at becoming true chimpanzees. We consciously took a non-judgmental approach to engaging with private owners, and worked carefully with both zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) to find new homes for those chimpanzees. Since the project started 13 years ago, we have helped facilitate the transfer of more than 60 chimpanzees and are proud to say the number of chimpanzees living in unaccredited roadside zoos has shrunk by more than 70 percent.

Joe Exotic did eventually let me inside his gift shop, where he proudly showed off his collection of scented candles and tiger-print sunglasses. We talked for several hours that day about how his chimpanzees could thrive if they were just given a chance. He seemed to think about this for a long time, and I could see that the idea of starting anew resonated with him. Eventually, two of his chimpanzees made it to the Center for Great Apes, an accredited sanctuary in Florida, but two others died there at his zoo.

The popularity of this docuseries has raised public awareness of unaccredited facilities that thrive more so on the exploitation of wildlife than appropriate care and preservation. We marvel at the wackiness of some of the characters on a television show but must not lose sight of the impacts these facilities are having on individual animals. Project ChimpCARE still works with the full spectrum of stakeholders to do what’s best for the chimpanzees. Even in these challenging times, accredited zoos and accredited sanctuaries have the means, resources, and public support to appropriately care for and manage the chimpanzees and other endangered wildlife for which they are responsible.

The docuseries reminds us of the importance of differentiating between organizations that, through robust accreditation, meet the standards necessary to allow species and individuals to flourish. Before you visit a wildlife facility, I implore you to ensure it is accredited by the AZA or the GFAS.