If, like me, you’ve been desperately trying to keep yourself sane during the lockdown, then you’ve probably been searching for new books to read and shows to binge watch.
One show you can’t have failed to notice is Tiger King, the documentary that quickly turned into a cult, non-fiction soap opera. It was meant to be a big cat version of Blackfish, the documentary about captive killer whales in SeaWorld and how their poor treatment at the amusement parks has led to psychological problems that caused them to attack and, in some cases, kill, the trainers who get in the water with them.
However, Tiger King is more about the individuals involved in America’s booming captive big cat trade than it is about the animals themselves. It tells the story of a mad roadside zookeeper, who twice tried to hire a hit man to kill a rival, who is also a former big cat breeder who now runs a slightly sketchy ‘sanctuary’.
In the course of exposing this crime, the filmmakers also touch on the disappearance of the target’s former husband and other big players in America’s booming big cat and exotic pet trades, including a serial bigamist and the new owner of the zoo, who loves to parade his cats around Vegas and use them as status symbols to attracts impressionable young women and punters at some of the strip’s famous casinos.
The show spawned a host of memes and mad theories, but it didn’t really tell you a lot about big cats. If you love animals, and are keen to enjoy a thrilling tale that taught you about them, then here are 5 non-fiction books about animals that will keep your mind active during the lockdown. They combine the absurdity of the individuals in these markets with factual information about the animals they own, giving you the chance to learn in a way you simply couldn’t when watching Tiger King.
5. H Is For Hawk: Equal parts memoir and discussion of hawk husbandry, in H Is For Hawk Helen Macdonald tells the story of her quest to tame Goshawk Mabel following the death of her father. A celebrated historian and experienced bird trainer, Macdonald walks readers through the history of training birds of prey for hunting as she dissects her own personal struggle to tame the hawk and her own conflicting feelings.
4. Taking Shergar: Exploring one of the racing world’s most baffling criminal cases, Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case reads like a thriller, combing common knowledge about this renowned crime with insider secrets about the close-knit horse racing world. Writer Milton C. Toby takes readers through the entire case in extraordinary detail, going through all of the suspects and the incredible reasons why the crime was never solved and the remains never found.
3. The Lizard King: With a name so similar to Tiger King, this is a great choice for avid fans of the series who really wanted to find out not only about the people involved in the inhumane practice of keeping animals, but the affects that captivity can have on the creatures in their ‘care’. In this case, the subject under discussion is not big cats, but reptiles. In The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers Bryan Christy shows readers the sordid criminal underbelly behind the exotic reptile trade in America, and how a federal agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out on an obsessive quest to take down some of this shady market’s biggest players. As gripping as it is informative, the book is almost as strange as Tiger King, only with smaller, but no less dangerous and majestic, animals.
2. Cuddle Me, Kill Me: Written by experienced animal rights campaigner Richard Peirce Cuddle Me, Kill Me: From Bottle To Bullet – A True Account of South Africa’s Captive Lion Industry exposes the inhumane treatment of the lion cubs that are bred to be cuddled, and then brutally disposed of when they get too big to pose alongside. Often they end up being used for ‘canned hunting’, a barbaric practice where the cats are sold to hunters so they can shoot them in a controlled environment and then mount the carcases as trophies. Peirce pulls no punches as he shares the facts about these horrific practices and how, behind the veneer of animal care, the centres that breed these cubs are focused purely on profit, with no regards the cats in their care.
1. Death At SeaWorld: Following on from the success of the documentary Blackfish, Death At SeaWorld: Shamu And The Dark Side Of Killer Whales In Captivity walks readers through the horrific world of killer whale capture and the industry regulated practices that resulted in at least 4 deaths and many more serious injuries to trainers. Writer David Kirby uses court records, eyewitness testimony and interviews with former trainers to create a book that reads like a thriller. He compassionately explains the difference between wild killer whale habits and behaviours and the artificial lives they are forced to lead in amusement parks, and how this has led to psychological and physical issues for the whales and those who care for them.