It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
And it was millions of Tik Toc users who spread a now viral dance remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, transposing the original lyrics with a rhyming amalgamation of reality television star Joe Exotic’s lamentations about his life’s/show’s antagonist, Carole Baskin, rapping thusly:
Baskin, killed her husband whacked him
Can’t convince me that it didn’t happen
Fed him to tigers, they snackin’”
* * *
Tiger King is billed as a documentary series, but its tone and reception more closely resembles a hit reality show. It offers the audience a view of a world where decadent eccentricity and spectacular poverty live hand in hand. One of the defining characteristics of a reality show is that it is not real, and to a mainstream audience, Tiger King more than hits that mark. The Atlantic called Tiger King “unfathomable and ethically dubious.” (Were The Atlantic to review life in the American Heartland, they might describe it the same way.)
I binge-watched the first three episodes of the Netflix reality show, Tiger King, all in one sitting. More than gawking at the show, I was enthralled imagining the audience gawking at the show. I knew that, for many, this show must inspire awe and wonder; that these themes and characters I found so familiar must indeed be unfathomable. I’ve been writing about this world for years because it’s the world I came from. I was able to write about it with some distance because it’s a world I’ve left behind. But disturbingly, not unlike a novel, life has an eerie way of circling back around and tying up the loose ends.
My second novel, The Albino Album (2013), begins with a racist albino animal breeder, whom the other characters meanly referred to as Mr. Looney Toons (because he was so crazy), hauling an albino tiger (in a covered trailer wagon hitched to the back of a pick-up truck) into a residential neighborhood while making a social call. As one might expect, nothing good came of this. An emotionally disturbed little girl – the book’s protagonist – for her own puzzling reasons, let the tiger out of the cage, and it mauled her mother, aunt and its owner, Mr. Looney Toons, to death.
In the book, Mr. Looney Toons and his brother Hank were neo-Nazis who bred exotic albino animals on their sprawling farmland in Southern Missouri. These brothers were amalgamations of many of the boyfriends my mother had throughout my childhood; men who looked like they would ride Harleys, but instead, owned rusted pickup trucks; men who dyed their goatees black and wore dangling ear-rings, clad in tight blue jeans, “wifebeaters” and leather jackets, who usually had at least one gun or knife hiding somewhere in their outrageous clothing. They totally rocked and at the same time, they were totally horrible. They were poor, under-educated and generally kept down by “the system,” and were also very bigoted.
When reviews of this book first hit, descriptions like “surrealism” and “magical realism” were plentiful. The economy my characters traded in was deadly, albino animals, and in interviews, it was noted that I’d written about uneducated, eccentric, racist men casually carting tigers around rural residential neighborhoods as if that were a fantastical choice for a plot-line. New York City reviewers and interviewers seemed to think that this particular aspect of the book defined it as surrealism or magical realism. To be sure, aspects of The Albino Album are surreal, but the casual presence of exotic animals in conservative, rural America was not one of them. Big cats being trafficked through rural towns near the border of the American south was just plain realism. They say to write what you know, and that’s what I’d done.
I grew up in a very rural area of Southern Illinois, about an hour and a half south-east of Saint Louis. I have many memories that would probably seem, to most city-dwellers and suburbanites, to belong to the realms of phantasmagoria.
In the third grade, I briefly made friends with a little girl from Junction City, a hamlet with a population of about 400 people located a mile away from my own town. (My town was a village with a population of about 1,300 people at the time.) This girl’s family was very poor. They lived in a long thin trailer home bordering a corn field. The trailer had remained on its lot for many years, and my friend’s family had built a small wooden porch onto the front of the trailer, that was barely more lavish than a stoop. We were sitting cross-legged playing on her porch when from below, I felt a rumbling and heard a deep, stomach-curdling growl emanating insistently upward. “What’s that?” I asked breathless, my face paling.
My new friend shrugged confoundingly nonchalantly. “Daddy caught a wolf,” she said. “Wanna see?”
She motioned for me to stand up and step back, then she leaned down and took hold of an apparently loose wooden board in the porch. It lifted up easily like a trap door, and there, directly below us, I saw a fully-grown wolf staring back up, snarling through the wires of a large crate in which it was being kept underneath her porch. We stared at it silently. It stared at us. This lasted a while. My friend finally replaced the board. I wanted to go and play somewhere else, where the floor wouldn’t threaten to devour me.
Years later, when Neil Gaiman’s popular children’s book, The Wolves in the Walls came out (in which a young girl hears wolves in the walls of her family’s house, and no one believes her until the day the wolves come out of the walls) I was immediately transported back to this memory. To me, the story read as less of a surrealist fable, and more of a warning for the ill fate that might befall any little girl whose daddy got too wolf-happy. When I was about 12 years old my own mother caught whatever deadly wild animal itch infected so many members of my hometown area, and now I cannot count how many wolf puppies my mother has owned. They all ended up running away just before they were fully grown. Imagine that.
Like attracts like, and during one very pleasant summer when I was 14, my mother made friends with a woman who also lived in Junction City, and who kept two mountain lions and one black panther in two large circular cages on her front lawn. This was not on some sprawling farm property, but a typical front yard of a two-bedroom, one story house on a residential street in a small, rural town, where the neighbors’ houses where about thirty feet away from each other. I loved spending time on that otherwise typical lawn that summer, visiting my mom and her new friend, watching the cats. We sat on stretchy plastic lawn chairs in front of her house. My mother and her friend drank light beers and smoked as I sipped sodas, and casually chatted about sex and religion and local gossip, the whole time admiring the big cats as they lounged or paced, depending on their mood. The woman also had a spider monkey that was always affixed to her shoulder. I wanted to hold it, but it hated everyone except her.
I relished those visits because I was able to obtain repeated rushes of adrenaline from as mundane an act as sitting and staring. Always, right in front of me, just about ten feet away, there sat two lions and one black panther. It didn’t matter what they were doing. If they were sleeping, the meter of their breath, the rise and fall of their ribs below their shining fur was enough to simmer my blood. Sometimes they stood and stretched and I ached to caress them, and then suddenly, on rare occasions, the thing I was always waiting for occurred, and they would leap and growl, and my hairs would stand on end, and my heart would leap with them, and magically, living in that bum-fuck nowhere, dwindling railroad town that so often felt like a long ago-abandoned ghost town, was not so bad at all.
I grew up in an area that has always been poor. The widespread generational poverty combined with the rural isolation of the area has resulted in a prevalence of libertarian idealism; because people there have never benefited from any social contract, they accept that they are owed nothing and that they therefore owe no one else anything. The pervasiveness of libertarian ideals has allowed free-market, corporate capitalism to endlessly cripple the economy, effectively killing off most of the few existing independent businesses by the late-90’s and continuously indenturing most of the population to the lowest-wage work available in the country, decade after decade.
No one cared what we did in those poor little farm towns. We had few social infrastructure resources (like public transportation, supportive services, or homeless shelters). We had no real scenes for young people, other than the occasional community theater production, hanging out at bonfires, or driving cars around strip-mall parking lots sipping wine coolers all night – but we also had no regulations. Even though, most often, there was nothing to do, if we wanted, in some way, we could do anything at all. This was the landscape of my third book, Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country. It was a wild freedom. Without things like exotic animals to look at, all we had were cornfields and cows; a flat wilderness breeding an empty, bovine freedom. Mostly, the libertarianism which was so popular in my area resulted in dearth of money and culture. These big cats in this woman’s front yard were symbols of the type of ostentation the libertarians always dreamed their philosophies would manifest.
Those lions and the black panther were short lived. My mother and her friend had a falling out. I don’t know what happened to the cats, but I never saw them again. I assumed she had to get rid of them because of how massively expensive they were to maintain. I only sat with them a handful of times, and then they were gone.
I was visiting home a couple of years ago, having a beer with some old friends who still live in Junction City, and I decided to test my memory with them. I asked if they recalled a woman who kept two lions and a panther in two giant, round cages on her front lawn when we were in high school. One friend told me, “Those weren’t lions. Those were bobcats and cougars.” I said that I distinctly remembered there being two mountain lions in one cage and a black panther in the other, and she’d also had a spider monkey.
Another friend piped up. He told us, “That was a different lady. The one you’re talking about was right in the middle of town. She didn’t have those for very long, but yeah, I remember that. But what he” (my other friend) “was talking about was a different lady; with the cougars and bobcats and all; she lived back by the tracks.” So, there had been two women in this hamlet of four hundred people who’d kept big cats in their yards when we were in high school.
Most fiction writers pull from their own lives. The tricky thing about fictionalizing the already fantastic is that it can become difficult for the audience to decipher what is a complete fabrication and what is rooted in reality. Big cats lounging on residential front lawns is much more interesting as a reality than a fantasy.
Last week, while socially isolating with my partner, I turned on Netflix and was immediately assailed by images of the gay version of every boyfriend my mother ever had. Tiger King’s Joe Exotic rocking his biker goatee, and flexing in his tight jeans, pointing his pistols at the camera, threatened a new “small Waco” through his smoker’s hack, as he relentlessly, passively abused twenty jam-packed acres worth of tigers; dozens of tigers rippling as far as the eye could see. “It’s Mr. Looney Toons!” I thought to myself, as I shot straight up on the couch, at full attention. The characters from my first novel had come to life and were on vivid display in my living room. Halfway through the first episode, my girlfriend told me this show reminded her of my hometown. (She’s visited once.) “Don’t you kind of feel like you’ve met these people?”
When Saff Saffery, one of Joe Exotic’s staff members, spoke rather lackadaisically about the fact that he lost his hand and part of his arm during a mishap while feeding a tiger, and then went on to explain how he decided to have his arm amputated rather than go through a year of reconstruction and therapy, because that was just the nature of the work, and he wanted to be able to get back to it as quickly as possible, I understood. For many, potential maiming by animals is just an unavoidable fact of life.
In the eighteen years I lived in Southern Illinois, I believe, three children were killed by their parent’s exotic pets in my hometown area. (I refer to my home town area, rather than my hometown, because the towns there are so small that they have to function as parts of one larger, connected whole. For instance, there were no schools in Junction City, so one school served children from two towns, and there were still only about 300 hundred students in the entire school housing the 7th through 12th grades. My school did not have a theater program, so I attended drama club at the nearby Centralia High School, and my school did not offer Psychology, so I drove to a neighboring town, Patoka, to take that class. The schools in another nearby town, Odin, didn’t offer more than one year of Spanish, so many students attended Sandoval High one hour a day to take continuing courses. Our towns were interconnected, so when something happened in Marion, Irvington, or Clinton County, like a baby being killed by an exotic pet, it made the news across several townships.) I remember hearing about the deaths of children to family pets throughout the 80’s and 90’s. It was not odd, but it was tragic. At the time, it seemed to me to be an unavoidable part of life. Sometimes parents’ pets just kill their kids. Nothing to be done about it, really.
I myself have survived brutal attacks from a Doberman Pincher and two Pitbulls (one of them albino, which attacked me multiple times throughout my childhood, and another which only attacked me only once, but nearly killed me when I was a toddler). The last time the albino Pitbull tried to kill me, I was twelve years old. I won that final fight, and I fought with my fists, then ended up hurling the mad dog against the wall, and escaped with my new puppy, which it had also been threatening, and my life. I finally felt like a real man. I was a twelve-year-old girl.
When Joe Exotic explained that he fed his tigers with meat from “the Walmart truck,” (a semi that regularly delivered donations of expired or returned meat from Walmart to the tiger farm) and in the next shot I saw the staff members picking through the piles of expired meat, taking the “best cuts” for themselves, I understood. It’s expensive to feed big cats, especially on a Trumpland income.
One very good friend I made while visiting Saint Louis as a teenager grew up with two lions in his backyard. He lived in Southern Missouri, just across the river, about an hour away from my hometown. His parents had kept two mountain lions as pets since he was very young. This wasn’t a sign of wealth. I called him last week to ask him the question that I never asked when we were younger. How had his family afforded to keep two mountain lions all those years? He told me they often collected carcasses of cows that died from neighboring farmers, and also heavily relied on donations of expired meat from local grocers to keep their lions fed and happy.
When every man on the show repeatedly became murderously enraged by the fact that the show’s antagonist, Carole Baskin, thought that breeding and keeping tigers in captivity for entertainment and profit might be abuse in and of itself, I understood. Where I grew up, if you weren’t actively beating the shit out of something, it wasn’t considered abuse.
In 2018, I went home for one of my regular summer visits. The longer I live in New York City, the more intensely I experience a massive culture shock when I go back to visit my relatives in Southern Illinois. As soon as I made it into town, many people informed me that there was a traveling exotic zoo set up in the parking lot of the local strip mall. “They’ve got a full grown, white Siberian tiger out there,” my cousin told me, then stared expectantly, awaiting my reaction. He was very curious. Everyone who told me about the white tiger in the strip mall parking lot did so in the same way. They told me the basic fact of it without evoking any clear opinion of their own, and then watched me, obviously wondering how I would react, like they were waiting for a foreigner tasting peanut butter for the first time to give them a verdict; ‘Do you think it’s good or bad, and if it’s bad, how bad is it to you?’ They were used to it, of course. They were Americans.
It wasn’t only living in New York City for fifteen years that had caused this cultural alienation, I was always considered weird by the people in my hometown. I was sensitive as a child, and in that area of the country, sensitivity was something to be stamped out, not cultivated. I stopped eating meat when I was twelve years old, and as you can probably guess, that didn’t go over well. I’d never met another vegetarian. I didn’t even know that people could survive without eating meat, until my republican uncle, in an attempt to silence my whining about animal cruelty, mocked me saying, “Why don’t you just become a vegetarian, then?” He laughed when he said it like it was something absurd, impossible. I was twelve years old. I asked him, “What’s a vegetarian?” He told me, with an equal air of total absurdity, “It’s people who only eat vegetables!”
Six months later, I became this insane, horrid, absurd, alien, sniveling, weak, impossible thing; a vegetarian. Dead animals began appearing in my desk at school, killed and placed there by some of my fellow classmates. Boys cornered me in the hallway and sang a popular verse from the 90’s song Mary Moore to me in unison, “She don’t eat the meat, but she sure likes the bone!” grabbing their crotches and thrusting at me as they sang. I’d incited a minor mass hysteria by acknowledging, through my actions, that I thought the wellbeing of something other than humans mattered.
One very hot summer day in the seventh grade, when we were taking P.E. outside, we were playing in the ball field and the grass was overdue for a mow, I remember, almost every time we took a step, giant grasshoppers would leap from near our feet, bouncing up then disappearing, then bouncing back up again, in endless W’s that zigzagged over the grass. These insects were huge and the field was full of them. I caught one in my hand and looked at it closely. It was more like an animal than a bug. It had thick, leathery, gorgeous green skin. I felt affection for the creature. I admired it for a moment before it bounded off of the palm of my hand, and then a boy hopped over, scooped it up from the grass, held it in the air, and proceeded to slowly dismember it in front of me, pulling off one leg after another, smirking the whole time. I yelled at him to stop. The grasshoppers were just lovely. They were lovely. My face flushed and I teared up and tried to keep from really crying, and he started laughing and grabbed another grasshopper, and held it in the air menacingly. I realized he was going to continue killing these insects to as long as I continued reacting, so I turned and began walking away, hoping that my lack of response would cause him to lose interest, but he followed me with the bug, dangling the squirming grasshopper by the side of my face. I couldn’t wrestle it from him. The bug was so fragile that even a struggle to retrieve it would kill it, so I ran from the boy, determined not to provide him an audience, which was the main motivation for his cruelty, and then he started running, and then two other boys started running with him, squealing with glee as they went. I ran across the field to the cement batter’s cage. They caught me behind the batter’s cage, and shoved me down onto the grass on my back. Two of the boys held me down by the shoulders, and the third boy who now had a handful of grasshoppers, held his fistful of the beloved bugs in my face and began pulling them apart, smashing them, killing them as gooily and grotesquely as possible, and I started sobbing. The three boys were laughing hard as they held me down, because they thought it was absurd that I was crying over bugs being killed, and one of them kept yelling gleefully, “Make her look! Make her look!” while they grabbed at my head in an attempt to keep it turned toward the grasshopper-killing hands being shoved in my face. I closed my eyes tight and tears ran down my hot cheeks. This probably lasted only one full minute before they dropped the pile of now-dead bugs on my chest and ran off. One minute of my life when I was twelve years old. That’s all.
Now, I understand why it happened. The fact that I could have compassion for animals was confusing, and potentially threatening, to them. We were on the lower rungs of society, and power over animals was one of the few powers that we had. My renunciation of that power challenged their status because it either implied that they, as fellow humans, had no right to that power, or that I was more powerful because I had no need for it.
Cruelty was commonplace. Out there in the country we weren’t sheltered from pain. Many of the people in my hometown were raised very roughly. No rods were spared, and grief was a well-integrated part of life from the time we were young. There were only about 180 students in the entire high school in the Freshman to Senior classes combined, and beginning my freshman year, one student from my school died every year. One had a car wreck, one drowned, one killed himself, one overdosed just after graduation.
I knew most of the students at my school qualified for free lunches (now it is nearly 100%). At least three girls in my school were married (and some of them divorced) before high school graduation, and teen pregnancies were not uncommon. For myself, my father’s side of the family was solidly working class, just one generation separated from extreme poverty. We had a nice house, and my paternal grandparents, whom I lived with since I was a baby, maintained a mostly regular income and were usually able to pay the bills and even go on summer vacations. But my mother’s side of the family was a different story. My mother has struggled with long stints of homelessness my entire life, as have my two siblings on my mother’s side. I kept that private as a teenager, (which was possible because my mother and half-siblings lived in a different town and had different last names than me.) I didn’t let anyone know that sometimes, when I was a little kid and I was staying with my mom, we didn’t have enough food to eat. I kept it secret that sometimes my mother slept outside or lived in tents and campers for months at a time. But when conservative teachers and classmates preached their libertarian ideals, insisting that everyone could just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that capitalism was the only system that gave everyone a fair shake, I would dive headfirst into very heated arguments that tore me apart inside. Most people in the town were working class but thought of themselves as middle class (like my father’s side of my family). But large portions also lived in dire poverty (like my mother’s side), and there was a divide between the two classes that may not have even been visible to outsiders.
This is all simply to say that in my hometown, poverty was prevalent, but talking about it as such was discouraged. If you look up quick facts for my home town in the U.S. Census Bureau, you’ll learn that 37% of individuals live at or below the poverty line, with 24% of households bringing in less than $10,000 a year. The median household income is $29,000 a year. The average income for an individual is $14,700 (The average individual income in the U.S. is about $44,000). Nearly 60% of workers in my hometown are manual labor workers (factory, railroad, farm, etc.) and among this group there is a 15.2% unemployment rate. More than 48% of households receive food stamps, and, as I mentioned, nearly 100% of high school students receive free lunches.
All of this paints a somewhat dire picture, yet I have repeatedly been rebuffed by family members and local residents when I’ve described what’s happening in the area as rural poverty. They don’t take issue with the term “rural.” There is no doubt about that. They are proudly country people, who are happy raising their children surrounded by cornfields, and cows, and woods, and creeks. They like to go “mudding.” They go to monster truck rallies, and sneak their first beers behind the bleachers at county fairs, and shoot potatoes out of homemade potato guns, and they like real guns, too. There is a very active FFA, and if you’ve ever driven there, you’ve probably complained about getting stuck behind a tractor that was taking up the whole road going ten miles an hour down a highway. It’s rural. There’s no arguing about that. But many take issue with the word “poverty.” Many people, even the lowest paid workers, don’t like to think of themselves as poor. But I grew up in an area that is rural, and the average income for an individual is below the federal poverty line, so I do not know how to describe that circumstance except as “rural poverty.” Why do so many of the people who live there refuse this description?
In the county where my town is located, 70% of the voters voted for Trump in 2016. And I know this is directly related to their inability, or unwillingness to identify themselves and those around them as members of the class they inhabit. These are the same reasons they are leading protests for the right to endanger themselves while working low-paying jobs, rather than demanding the government protect and provide financial relief to its citizens; they don’t want to be seen as needing a hand-out. They have no relationship with the notion of a social contract, and they are deeply acclimated to suffering and continuously present danger.
People where I grew up believe the message America feeds them to keep them living on their low rung; if you’re poor, it’s your own damn fault, and also, if you try hard enough, (especially if you’re white) you’ll get rich any day now.
During one visit home, I found myself sitting in a dingy, dark bar, drinking a whiskey and coke, having a political debate with a grizzled, white, middle-aged man, who it seemed had spent much of his life sitting at the end of this long wooden bar, sipping an endless beer. (I was a child Republican. Until the age of 14, I was also a hardcore evangelical Christian. When I lost my faith, my politics shifted far left. Still, when I go back home to visit, I often talk with any right-wing locals I can safely debate.)
This man in this dark bar was representative of a lot of the people in the area. He worked in a factory and owned a mobile home which he lived in on a rented lot. He’d worked in the factory for more than 20 years. He was bringing in about $12 an hour, which was good pay for the area. He’d started out, more than 20 years ago, at minimum wage, which meant over the course of more than 20 years, his wage had increased by about five dollars an hour. He was not part of a union, and was, in fact, staunchly anti-union. During our conversation, this man told me that he didn’t believe in a minimum wage. Not that he didn’t believe in raising the minimum wage, but that he didn’t believe that a minimum wage should exist.
This was definitely not the first time I’d heard this sentiment, and the logic behind it was equally familiar; “Well, if I ever get rich and own a business, I want to be able to make as much money as I can,” he told me. I noted that in his statement, getting rich came before owning a business.
Did he have any savings? “Not really.” Had he ever owned property? “No. Well, my mobile home, but not land.” Had his parents owned a business or property? “No.” Had he graduated high school? Equivalent? College? “No. No. No.” He’d quit school at the age of fifteen. Did he have some business plan in mind? “Naw.” When is he going to get to retire? “Probably not ever.” Bitter laughter, sipping beer. Two teeth visibly missing. Faded ball cap. Works long hours on an assembly line, yet identifies with the corporate business owner he has never met. No one wants to believe they’re on the bottom of the proverbial food chain.
* * *
“A full grown, white Siberian tiger is in the strip mall parking lot in Centralia?” I repeated, just to be sure we were clear. My cousin nodded. “Do you have to pay to get in?”
“Nope. You just pay if you want a picture taken with it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go see it.”
I didn’t go because I thought it was okay. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. It was a hot summer day in southern Illinois in 2018. My family and I pulled into the parking lot, where dozens of wooden pens and wire cages full of animals sat shielded by the sun underneath white tent-like structures that had been erected, made of posts and tarps. There was a small petting zoo with some very happy goats and small-breed cows. You could drop a quarter into a machine that dispensed animal feed and give them pellets from the palm of your hand. Many children were feeding and petting the livestock, and that seemed pleasant enough. It reminded me of the county fairs of my childhood, which I actually always enjoyed, and those particular barnyard animals seemed healthy and happy.
But then there was the tattered wallaby, the very depressed monkey that was gut-wrenching to even look at, and the lion cubs in small cages next to a podium where people lined up to pay to have their children’s pictures taken with these obviously long-suffering exotic animals. Twenty bucks a photo. That’s where the real money was, and that’s where the real pain was too. A kid picked the monkey, and it screeched and smacked and bit at the handler as he tore it from its tiny, barren cage and instructed it to pose. My sister told me later that he’d wacked the depressed monkey with a small stick to make it comply.
I watched rows of some of the poorest people in the country line up for the chance to pay other poor people to torture some of the most magnificent animals in the world. “Where’s the tiger?” I asked my sister, feeling a sickening numbness take over.
“Behind that curtain. You only have to pay one dollar. You can stay in there with it as long as you want.”
I felt conflicted. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to have my picture taken with a cub, but the fee just to see the fully-grown tiger was only one dollar. I wanted to know how bad it was, but I also didn’t want to give these people so much as one thin dime. I tried to justify going in by recalling what one of my relatives had told me; that she’d heard the tigers were only kept in the cage with the traveling show a few weeks at a time. She said she didn’t think it would be legal otherwise; that they lived on a sprawling wildlife reserve most of the year. I wanted to know if this was true, so I asked a staff member: “How many months of the year is the tiger kept in a cage, touring around the country like this?” She told me to ask the manager, and pointed to a man standing behind the podium near the entrance, below a sign that read in aged letters, Jungle Safari.
He only had one eye. His right eye had been gouged out and was grown over with a thick layer of flesh, so he looked like he was always angrily winking. His skin was taut and tan like leather. He wore a stained baby blue t-shirt and greeted me in a throaty long-time smoker’s voice as I stepped up to his podium. “Yeah?” he growled.
I made contact with his one eye, determined not to be intimidated, although it felt absurd to challenge this grizzled man about animal abuse. (Had anyone ever cared what happened to him?) “I was just wondering,” I tried, “Does this tiger travel in its cage all year round?”
“Naw,” he forced out, his expression stony as he spoke. “They’re kept on a reserve; they have hundreds of acres to roam. They’re only in this cage three weeks out of the year. We rotate them.” He’d said all this in a gravelly, bored monotone, and I knew he was simply repeating lines from a script. None of this had any relationship to reality, but my family members were looking at me, had heard what this man had claimed, and were waiting for me to make a decision based on this information. This was the most exciting activity that would be available to people in the area for months, at least.
I took a deep breath and decided to commit a grave sin. I paid one dollar and went in. The Siberian tiger was massive and the cage about half the size of my New York City bedroom – too small of an enclosure for a tiger to live in. Its water bowl was bone dry. It lay on hard concrete. The cage was dirty. We were just a few feet away from it, but it didn’t care. That gorgeous tiger had no interest in anything, no energy, no will to exert. Streams of people came through. They stood and stared and took photos with their phones. I started asking them, “Do you think this is right?” I asked if they thought the tiger had enough space, enough water, and didn’t its cage seem meager and dirty?
To my surprise, most people agreed with me. It wasn’t enough room. The cage was dirty and depressing. It was concerning that its small water bowl was empty given the current heat. No one could argue these points. Like the tiger, the bleakness of the situation was indifferently staring us in the face.
I went home and researched this traveling “zoo,” Jungle Safari, and found out that many different animal rights groups have launched protests and filed complaints against them for animal abuse. The animals do are not rotated out, living most of their days on some sprawling sanctuary, but are, in fact, toured around the country the majority of the year, living out their lives in tiny cages on the backs of trucks or in small-town parking lots for the amusement of rural Americans.
It’s not like riches are being made off of this either. The staff for these types of establishments are typically very poor, often working for less than minimum wage, usually because the types of people who work these jobs cannot find employ anywhere else. In fact, during my research I found that Jungle Safari was most infamous for one of its staff members raping children across multiple states. Traveling with the zoo had granted him a new level of access to girls under twelve years old. He was now serving several years in prison. The newspaper noted that they had reached out to Jungle Safari to see if they now required background checks for their workers, receiving no response from the organization.
This was all very disturbing, but there was nothing I could do about it. Contrary to what my aunt had believed, there are few laws regulating the care of these animals. As long as they were not literally physically torturing them (though I would argue such confined captivity for wild animals is torture) there was nothing legally to be done.
Familiar feelings of anxiety and painful compassion, compounded by frustration with my own inability to change things overwhelmed me, and as I sometimes do when I’m in Southern Illinois, I decided to deal with these feelings by going out and drinking too much whiskey. I met my high school friends at a bar where they knew the manager. The more whiskey I drank, the more it became clear to me that Jungle Safari was a metaphor for the things that I hated about rural, conservative America. Poor people payed other poor people paltry amounts of money to needlessly inflict suffering in order to momentarily relieve their boredom. And sure, you could make a meager living off of owning a tiger, but it’s a very day-to-day situation, because the tiger still needs to be fed, and as soon as there is one slump in this economy of tigers well, the thing you’ve been living off of is going to devour you. The economy of tigers is extremely dangerous, requires exceptional cruelty, intensive amounts of labor, and barely supports its workers.
A few days ago, I turned on the news to see our political leaders suggesting that some people in this country should be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to keep our capitalist economy alive. I flicked off the news and turned on Tiger King, and realized I was watching the same show.
Sitting at that bar in Southern Illinois in 2018, my head full of whiskey, I lamented to my friends that I couldn’t get the image of the tiger being abused in the strip mall parking lot out of my mind. The bar manager overheard what I was saying and piped up. “Abuse?” he shouted angrily, as though he were defending his own good name, “You think that’s abuse? You have got to be kidding me! They’re not beating it, are they? Don’t tell me you’re one of these animal-rights people! How are they abusing them? Abuse, my ass.”
This man in the bar was insisting that the tiger in the cage in the strip mall parking lot wasn’t being abused, and talking like I was insane for thinking so. I was drinking too much whiskey, but I tried, for once, to not engage in a confrontation with another idiotic man from Southern Illinois. I decided to let him say his piece about the tiger, and just move on. I tried telling myself nothing he said mattered anyway. I knew why he had to play this old tired song about compassion for animals being ridiculous. If he could focus his attention downward, to anything that had been allotted less power than him, he could focus on just how much power he had, and never look up and see what was being done to him, and who was doing it, and just how low he really was. His pomp and cruelty was a distraction. I told myself that he was so pitiful, really. On my previous trip home, he’d lamented to me that he and his wife worked three jobs, two full time jobs and one part time job, just to maintain a combined annual household income of under $50,000 (two adults were working themselves to death just to make less than $25,000 a year, each.) I’d felt sorry for him then, but now a rage was growing in me, as he’d taken to berating me simply because I thought a seven-hundred-pound wild animal should not be kept confined to a space smaller than my cramped New York City bedroom its entire life. I swallowed my anger with another shot, and reminded myself I would be gone soon, back to New York City, far away from this culture of dearth and conservative bombast, but resentment still burned in my stomach.
Later, at home, sleeping in my childhood bed, my head was spinning with whiskey and rage, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that damn cat. ‘What if I just went down there to that strip mall parking lot in the middle of the night and snuck into that tent and let the tiger go free?’
It occurred to me that this was almost the exact plot of the novel I’d written five years before. Three times, I stood, walked over to the door and placed my hand on the knob, willing myself to act, but in the end, even my drunken mind knew better. Whatever else might come of it, such and insane action could only end badly for me and the tiger. I finally got back in bed and drifted off into a drunken sleep. In the morning, I recalled with horror what I’d considered doing the night before.
That was more than two years ago now, and it all still seems so pressing and present. As I write this, we’re waiting for more people to die from COVID-19 every day, we’ve spent months pleading for rent freezes that will never come, while entertaining ourselves with stories of tigers and decadence. I’m watching CEOs and politicians refer to low-wage workers as essential, as heroes. For years, all they had to say about these people was that their jobs were meant to be temporary, that teenagers could do their jobs, that they didn’t deserve so much as a livable wage or health insurance or paid sick leave, and now they are our heroes, though there has been no increase in wages to reflect this improved status. So-called “real Americans” showed up heavily armed to protest the lock down, demanding their right to die for the very capitalist system that has placed them in such a desperate situation; and demanding we risk our own lives for it as well.
Joe Exotic was willing to fight for his right to keep his big cats, even though he could barely afford to feed them, even though they tried to eat him feet first. He was willing to kill for the right to trade in ferocious, predatory creatures that were never meant to be kept in cages. Joe Exotic, wearing his elastic gold crown, wrapped in a cheap, kingly robe, gun on his hip, standing in a field of tigers sniffing hungrily at his feet is the America I know. The economy is collapsing under the weight of the pandemic, unable to properly support its citizens, because capitalism was never meant to benefit the middle and working class. I can’t help feeling that my entire life has foreshadowed this very moment, and I look back with regret over that drunken night two years ago. Maybe I should have just gone down to that strip mall parking lot after all and unlocked that damned cage.
Chavisa Woods is the author of four books, including Things To Do When You’re Goth in the Country, and 100 Times (A Memoir of Sexism). Woods is a MacDowell Fellow and the recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award, the Kathy Acker Award in Writing, the Cobalt Prize for Fiction, and others. In 2020, she accepted the position of Executive Director of A Gathering of the Tribes, a nonprofit multicultural art and literature organization, founded by her late mentor, Steve Cannon. She was born and raised in a small farm town in Southern Illinois, and now divides her time between New York City and Seattle. Her work has received praise from the New York Times, The LA Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Review of Books, Booklist, Lambda Literary Review, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, The Feminist Review, The Rumpus, and many other media outlets. She has appeared on The Young Turks, NPR’s 1A in conversation with Jean Carol hosted by Joshua Johnson, Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, NPR Saint Louis, Season of the Bitch, and has featured at such notable venues as The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Mid-Manhattan Public Library at 42nd Street, City Lights Bookstore, Town Hall Seattle, The Brecht Forum, and The Cervantes Institute.