The Drama and Appeal of ‘Tiger King’ Is a Century in the Making

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Andrew Robichaud is assistant professor of history at Boston University and author of "Animal City: The Domestication of America," which was published in 2019 by Harvard University Press.


While the murder mystery is distinctive, the fascination with exotic animals and the debate over their treatment is not. The way Americans treat animals — particularly as forms of entertainment and exhibition — has been a contentious question in the United States going back hundreds of years. Then, as now, debates about animals often descend into squabbles among our own species.

Zoos in America go back at least to Montezuma, but in colonial times animal exhibitions were somewhat rare but noteworthy. Newspapers announced the arrival of the first caged lion in North America in 1720, the first camel in 1721, a polar bear in 1733 and a leopard in 1768.

But it was in the 19th century that exotic animal exhibitions burst into popular entertainment — popularized most of all by P.T. Barnum and a flurry of other private zookeepers and showmen, including Robert Woodward in San Francisco and Grizzly Adams’s traveling show. Nineteenth-century cities became sites of countless small-scale zoos and wild animal exhibits and shows. The conditions these animals faced were abysmal by today’s standards: animals chained to posts, or confined in small cages. Mark Twain noted the “dingy horrors” of one of these “pleasure grounds” in San Francisco.

As today, conflicts emerged over the character of animal exhibits in American life. Indeed, there is something of a tortuous lineage from P.T. Barnum to Joe Exotic — including their failed political careers later in life (Barnum ran for Congress in 1867, and Joe Exotic ran for president in 2016 and for governor of Oklahoma in 2018). Like Joe Exotic, Barnum used animal exhibits largely to draw crowds and amuse customers: a consumer-centered form of animal entertainment that was thrilling and extravagant, but which some saw as socially degrading to people and cruel to animals.

Barnum also faced dogged opposition of those who sought to reform animal exhibitions as part of a larger political and social project. In the last decades of the 19th century, Henry Bergh’s ASPCA in New York emerged at the forefront of a nascent and powerful animal welfare movement in the United States. Armed with police and prosecutorial powers, Bergh demanded Barnum cease keeping live rabbits and birds confined alongside his boa constrictor at the American Museum — mostly to protect visitors from the terrifying spectacle. In later years, Bergh’s society would prod Barnum to stop using elephant goads and to end the Firehorse Act, in which horses leaped through flaming hoops.


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