Netflix’s hit docuseries Tiger King is so relentlessly crazy that it’s easy to think that its particular breed of bananas sprang from the present moment fully formed, like a leopard-clad Athena leaping from Zeus’ own blond mullet. But the show, which, for the few who have not binged it, focuses on a flamboyant tiger breeder and zoo owner who calls himself Joe Exotic, is evidence of a long Western tradition of exotic animal entertainment, and of a commoditized attitude toward animals that goes back to the 19th-century genesis of private zoos and menageries.
Exotic animals have been part of Western culture for hundreds of years, at first generally as part of private collections meant to demonstrate the owner’s status and ability (not unlike, say, Mike Tyson owning a tiger). But where in previous centuries there were an isolated few animals in private hands, to amuse their owners or appear as portrait accessories, during the 1800s the menagerie emerged as a fundamentally public entertainment. In that era, museums and zoos had not yet become the starchy public scientific institutions we now think of. Most early venues were private functions existing at the whim (and budget) of a single proprietor, and in order to get visitors in the door, budding American entertainers of all stripes readily turned to animal performers. “Nothing,” confirmed a New York Times reviewer in 1862, “creates so great an interest as a zoological collection…”
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