In the 2018 April/May issue of 209 Magazine, we introduced readers to the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas — a sanctuary where abandoned, abused and retired exotic animals who have lived as victims of captivity can live out the rest of their lives in peace and dignity, right here in the 209. The nonprofit was founded in 1984 by former Hollywood animal trainer Pat Derby and her partner Ed Stewart, and has since rescued elephants, bears and big cats around the world from their cages.
The 209 Podcast recently reached out to Stewart to talk about the popularity of Netflix’s docuseries “Tiger King,” which shows the exact conditions PAWS aims to free exotic animals from.
What is PAWS’ mission?
Our mission is to improve the lives of captive animals and prevent as many animals from living in cages as we can. I think we’ve all learned in the last few weeks that it can be a really ugly life for an animal that has to live in captivity — especially an exotic animal.
Everyone is talking about the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King.” Have you seen it?
Yeah, it was kind of in my job description to watch that. They actually came and interviewed me for that show...after I saw what it looked like in the first two episodes; I ran it through fast just to make sure I wasn’t in it. I was never so happy not to be. It’s gotten mixed reviews from the animal welfare movement. A lot of people think it would’ve been better to show more of the plight of the animals, but I think the people in the show, to me, it wasn’t surprising. People like that are the ones who wind up running roadside zoos and getting animals for carnivals and circuses and pets, so I thought it was good to show what kind of people wind up in that business and what an ugly business it is. I’ve always said that you’ll never find anyone with a kid at Stanford that has a tiger in their backyard. It’s always someone who’s on parole, who has a drug problem, who has domestic violence problems and goes to jail.
Did you know of the show’s characters, like Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and Carole Baskin prior to seeing the show?
Oh yeah, I’ve heard of all of them. Doc Antle, I mean back in the ‘80s we knew about him...30 years ago we went to the zoo association...we knew we needed the zoos to help stop people like you saw in that show, and to make sure that people like that weren’t breeding tigers, weren’t stealing the babies from their mothers and weren’t shooting the tigers. We went to the major zoos in the country and they didn’t help us, so we were on our own. We pretty much got circuses off the map. They’re pretty much gone because people understood, after so many years of trying to educate people, that elephants shouldn’t be on a stage and shouldn’t be traveling from city to city in a train car or a truck and being addressed by a bullhook...so people understand that and the circus is pretty much vanished, but they don’t really understand about tigers. When I was growing up and when everybody was growing up, it’s drilled into your head that the only way to save tigers is to breed them. That’s not the way to save tigers — the way to save tigers — and any animal — is to save their habitat.
One of the things touted in this docuseries is that by breeding the tigers, you’re helping the species, and that dragging them around to malls and letting children hold the cubs is a form of education. What are your thoughts on that?
I think we’re teaching disrespect. I think kids learn something — that it’s okay to hold a baby tiger for some reason. The tigers know how to procreate...back off of their habitat and let them live where they’re supposed to. No one’s taken a baby tiger, raised it in captivity and released it into the wild...it just isn’t realistic...There are so many things that are misunderstood about captivity. The animals that are born in captivity live their whole life in a cage and die in a cage. None of it has anything to do with conservation.
How does PAWS compare to the facilities we see in “Tiger King?”
Well I’ve never been to Antle’s, I’ve never been to Joe Exotic’s and I’ve never been to Carole Baskin’s. The difference between those three is that Doc Antle — Kevin Antle is his real name — and Joe Exotic breed, and Carole Baskin doesn’t breed. That’s a huge difference. If you’re breeding, that’s a whole mark against you, and also Carole Baskin is trying to get the Big Cat Pub Safety Act passed to outlaw this thing...I’ve met Carole Baskin, but I’ve never been to her place. I don’t know what it’s like. I’m so concerned about making our place the best we can make it, I really don’t go around too much...the producer did an interview with the Washington Post and he actually mentioned PAWS and said there are sanctuaries that are run professionally and differently, and we were the only one that he mentioned...That cult life that almost all of those places had is really common with tigers, elephants and wild animals. I think some people are just attracted to it and love it. I don’t know how anyone can love keeping a tiger in an enclosure. I don’t love doing this. I don’t love the fact that...they have a limit, they have a fence.
Was there anything you saw in the docuseries that absolutely horrified you, and do you believe these scenes were glossed over by production at all?
I talked to somebody today who is in the animal welfare industry, and they weren’t happy with the treatment that the tigers got in this. They thought it was too much about the personalities. Just to get that one scene where they are pulling a brand new baby (tiger) in the mud and in the dirt with a stick up from underneath the mother and underneath a rusty fence and it’s screaming, and what’s the mother thinking? The mother has such maternal instinct. It has to be confusing and stressful for these mothers, all of a sudden their whole litter is gone and these guys are dragging it into their house to feed it by the bottle...I think just to get that one scene in a seven-part series was really effective and I was happy that they used that. Also, Joe Exotic carrying a gun and shooting when a tiger grabbed him and dragged him around the cage — you can see the type of people...everybody has a mugshot. They’re not the kind of people you would expect are in charge of conservation of tigers.
What is the harm in cub petting and sharing tiger selfies online, and what impact does it have on the animals?
Every baby that they hold was dragged away from its mother, just like the worst scene in that documentary. So hopefully, that will stick in people’s minds that the mother is abused and the baby is abused in order for you to do that...They buy their tigers from people like those on the show. If you look closely at the records from the show, there are places in California that Joe Exotic dealt with, and they’re in business and people go and pay money to see them. Those are the cats that come from a place like Joe Exotic’s.
PAWS successfully advocated for a ban on bullhooks in California — a brutal tool used to tame elephants. What’s next for PAWS?
After the bullhook ban, most people in the public now knows you shouldn’t hit an elephant with one...We got the weapon banned in California, and now I think that elephant welfare has a life of its own. The tiger thing is what’s not being understood now, and it’s a complicated issue because it’s an endangered animal. Why wouldn’t you breed an endangered animal? It’s hard to explain it...so we started concentrating on tigers and lions in the last few years and it’s worked out [well]. This “Tiger King” show...I don’t know how anyone can watch it and think that roadside zoos are a thing of the future. I think they are a thing of the past, and it should’ve been years ago...Every zoo in California came up and said they support the bullhook ban. That was what really made it sail through...that was a huge step, I think, and now the CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has written a letter that he is in favor of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, I don’t see how anyone could vote against it.
How can people contribute to the cause of saving exotic animals in captivity?
I know it’s hard and donations are tough because everybody has to worry about themselves right now, but when this [the coronavirus pandemic] is all over, don’t forget about us. They can go to www.pawsweb.org and they can see when the next open house would be rescheduled and all of our events that we would normally have. We don’t have very many, but you’re welcome to come and visit. It’s nothing like Joe Exotic’s tour, thank God.
This Q&A gives readers just a glimpse of the podcast; to listen to the episode in its entirety, visit www.209magazine.com.