Your favorite 'Tiger King' commentary comes from a Delaware-based biologist - Technical.ly

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Your favorite ‘Tiger King’ commentary comes from a Delaware-based biologist

University of Delaware Ph.D. candidate and wild cat conservationist Imogene Cancellare tweeted as she watched that Netflix doc everyone's talking about, then talked to us about the experience.

Imogene Cancellare has gone viral on social media before. She’s one of the scientists behind #scientistswhoselfie on Instagram, and, in September, trended on Twitter with her mind-bending “spider sheep” tweet featuring blue sheep in the Valley of Cats in China seemingly defying gravity as they grazed on the side of a steep cliff face.

That popular tweet was about sheep, but Cancellare, currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Delaware’s Rare and Elusive Species Lab under Dr. Kyle McCarthy, was there researching snow leopard gene flow across Central Asia.

“My lab primarily focuses on wild cat conservation, and we have students doing research on tigers in Sumatra and in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh,” Cancellare told Technical.ly. Among our many collaborations, we work closely with the NGO Panthera, which works exclusively on the conservation of wild cats.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when Cancellare, who has 40,000 followers on Twitter, started tweeting about Netflix’s disturbing and wildly popular documentary “Tiger King,” people were going to pay attention to what she had to say.

We caught up with Cancellare for a virtual Q&A about wild cats, exotic pet ownership and what you can do to help wild cat conservation. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Technical.ly: Tell us more about your personal big cat experience.

Cancellare: I worked at an accredited tiger sanctuary for a year at the end of my undergraduate degree, which introduced me not only to wild cats, but to the issues surrounding private ownership. All of the cats at Carolina Tiger Rescue were surrendered by or rescued from private ownership, and while the stories were always different, the theme was the same: The animals weren’t adequately cared for. Some were blatantly abused (shot with BB guns, stuck in basements with no access to the outdoors, confined to cages in junkyards), others showed signs of improper care (arthritis from living on concrete, stunted development from an inadequate diet).

Several animals were rescued during my year at this sanctuary, and watching the animals improve as their health and care improved cemented my opinion that private, for-profit ownership should be illegal. Combined with having the great fortune of seeing cats in the wild — bobcats, mountain lions, and even snow leopards (as part of my dissertation research at UD) — these roadside zoos are a stain on the reputations of reputable facilities that work for conservation, and conservation education.

Why did you decide to live tweet “Tiger King”?

MANY friends and family texted me asking if I’d seen “Tiger King.” I knew I would watch it eventually, given my familiarity with the facilities in question (I’ve been blocked on social media by several of Doc Antle’s employees for pointing out their blatant misinformation surrounding hybridization of big cats), but after the 15th text, I figured a few people might be interested in a perspective that includes captive big cat experience AND free-ranging wildlife research. I also figured that live tweeting might make it more bearable for me!

Did you expect your commentary to get the response it got?

No, I didn’t. I tweet about issues surrounding wildlife and conservation on top of my dissertation research at UD, and while I enjoy enthusiastic interaction, I wasn’t expecting the thread to get so much traction. I am *very* encouraged by the interest, however, because it means [members of] the public are either already thinking about the issues of private exotic animal ownership, or they are beginning to have conversations about what it means in the context of animal care, ethics and conservation.

What were the reactions like from your end?

I spent most of the docuseries yelling at the TV screen, and it seems many others did, too. I was frustrated that so many scenes displaying poor animal husbandry — overcrowded cages, statements about not having enough food, administering anesthetic drugs for non-medical reasons, and the countless times cubs were showing stress, to name a few — were essentially background noise. These scenes are what we should be discussing, not just the human interactions and in-fighting between organizations and criminals.

Do you think “Tiger King” would be the pop culture thing it is right now if not for mass social distancing lockdowns?

Probably. Perhaps the reception is accelerated due to social distancing, but it’s great TV from an entertainment perspective, and was always likely to be popular.

However, it highlights our interest with pop culture rather than real issues, as the real plot — irresponsible ownership of wild animals — was not the focus of the docuseries. Tiger King missed an opportunity to educate viewers on distinguishing for-profit facilities from credible sanctuaries, how cub petting is harmful, and how to best support tiger conservation. Specifically: accredited zoos and sanctuaries play an important role in wildlife conservation and rescuing exploited wildlife. Some facilities do both, and it is incredibly important as a consumer to research a “zoo” before visiting. “Tiger King” missed the opportunity to teach us the difference between me having tigers in my backyard, and accredited facilities like the Smithsonian combining the best accepted practices in animal captivity with research to educate the public and contribute to conservation efforts.

Wildlife experts and animal welfare professionals decry private ownership and unregulated breeding of wild animals because of the inability to trace genetic pedigree (important for local adaptation and population health) and the prolific abuse and exploitation of captive individuals, AND the associated increase in poaching of free-ranging wildlife for the exotic animal trade.

Not only are private zoos unable to systematically or individually address conservation issues, they also create new conservation threats for free-ranging wildlife, but often involve abuse, exploitation and unhappiness of captive animals due to the lack of regulatory bodies. While accredited zoos and sanctuaries play an important role in educating the public and protecting animals that were previously in private ownership, research efforts on free-ranging wildlife are also incredibly important, and public attention is also needed on this important work.

What can people who are concerned about this issue do to combat it?

If you are interested in making sure individual animals are treated kindly, do not go to private events and roadside zoos. Do your research on the why and what you are seeing, and only give your support to facilities that prioritize animal welfare by following regulatory standards of care.

If you’re interested in the conservation of free-ranging wildlife, my advice is similar: Don’t go to unaccredited, roadside zoos. Conservationists don’t work with them. Instead, consider investing in the programs supported by accredited facilities, or support conservation organizations that are transparent with their research and community efforts to conserve free-ranging wildlife.

With more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than there are left in the wild, private ownership is not helping tiger conservation. But, by being informed, you can.

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