Written By: By J.I. Baker
On April 8, 2020, a New York Post reporter asked then-President Donald Trump if he would consider pardoning Joseph Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic), the former zookeeper and star of Netflix’s Tiger King who was incarcerated for killing five tigers and attempted murder-for-hire of a rival. “He’s asking you for a pardon, saying he was unfairly convicted,” the reporter explained. Not surprisingly, Maldonado-Passage was not exonerated, but it’s a measure of the show’s popularity that the question even reached the President’s ears—during a coronavirus briefing, no less.
Tiger King had become a huge hit—and Exotic had risen from unscrupulous animal breeder to reality-TV star—by being an all-too-human drama that revolved around compelling animals. Exotic’s business (and Tiger King itself) would not have existed if tigers did not inspire us with awe, as they have since at least the Neolithic period.
Eight thousand years after ancient Indians first depicted the animals in rock art, we’re still trying to capture the essence of tigers, featuring them in movies, art, books, television, and advertising. Consider Shere Kahn in The Jungle Book, Tigger, Tony the Tiger, and Calvin’s Hobbes—just for starters. In 2001, Britney Spears shared the stage with a tiger during a classic performance on the MTV Video Music Awards. That same year, the best-seller Life of Pi featured a tiger as one of its main characters; it was later adapted into a movie. Tigers are also featured as mascots for thousands of amateur and professional sports teams.
Unfortunately, the reverence with which we once regarded tigers has devolved, over time, into a desire to control them. The idea that we can dominate a seemingly indomitable force of nature—and get close to its power in the process—may help explain the popularity of captive tigers in zoos, cub-petting operations, circuses, and roadside attractions like Exotic’s. During Siegfried and Roy’s popular Las Vegas act, which combined performing tigers with high-tech magic, audience members were allowed to handle tiger cubs. Roy himself seemed to exert an effortless mastery over the big cats.
This proved to be the duo’s greatest illusion—as they themselves discovered on the night of October 3, 2003, when Roy was mauled by a tiger during a performance, effectively ending the act. As comedian Chris Rock said of the incident, “That tiger went tiger!” (On January 13, 2021, Siegfried died of pancreatic cancer, eight months after Roy succumbed to Covid-19.)
Sooner or later, tigers always “go tiger,” but their power and ferocity are clearly only part of their allure. Alligators are fearsome, too, but we don’t particularly want to hold them. Can you imagine a roadside coyote-petting park—or Siegfried and Roy passing wolf cubs to enraptured audience members?
Maybe we’re also attracted to tigers because they resemble our beloved house cats—both visually and behaviorally. “A cat in a person’s house isn’t all that different from a cat on the Serengeti Plains,” according to Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human, while veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help, writes, “A cat is in some ways like a miniature tiger in your living room.”
A tiger’s dramatic look—bright orange coat and elaborate patterns of black and white stripes—may be another reason for the big cats’ enduring appeal, but their appearance is hardly a feline fashion statement. The markings provide camouflage that helps the animals hunt successfully. (Many of tigers’ preferred prey—deer, for instance—are color blind.)
The fact that a tiger’s beauty serves a deadly purpose is just one of the many contradictions the animals embody—another source of their mysterious enchantment. Though they are the biggest of the big cats, with roars that can be heard from two miles away, tigers are nearly soundless while stalking prey. They are one of the world’s fiercest predators but inherently shy and elusive. Our own feelings about tigers are also contradictory: We can’t seem to separate our fascination from our fear, and our awe in the face of tigers’ magnificence often coexists with an urge to destroy them.
Next year is the Chinese Year of the Tiger—the perfect time to recapture our ancient reverence for the animals and remember that they are in danger of becoming extinct, having been slaughtered by humans for at least a thousand years. You can help ensure their survival by donating money to rescue and conservation organizations. “You will change their lives and they may change yours,” according to Tigers in America, an organization dedicated to helping captive tigers. “They haven’t lost their ability to fascinate and we should not lose our ability to care.”
Here are a sampling of photos from from LIFE ‘s Tigers: The World’s Most Extraordinary Animal,