Where do wild animals go after we see them on TV?
The popularity of shows like The Tiger King reignited the discourse on the exotic animal trade. It’s still a widespread issue, especially with the proliferation of private zoos, roadside carnivals, and, the ambassador animal circuit. Ambassador animal segments are as popular as ever, often the most shared clips on social media off of morning and late night talk shows. However, where these animals go after their appearances is rarely questioned. While it’s assumed that they go to a zoo or a shelter, there’s rarely discussion on how animals are tracked or cared for during their ambassador animal journey. Tim Harrison, a retired police officer, firefighter, and paramedic, who founded the non-profit, Outreach for Animals, investigated the ambassador animal circuit, specifically tiger cubs. His findings while tracking these cubs were horrifying, and The Conservation Game tracks his investigation deep into the heart of the exotic animal trade. I had the opportunity to talk with Tim Harrison about his investigation:
Q&A with Tim Harrison
The Knockturnal: You use lots of examples of ambassador animals on shows like Good Morning America or The Tonight Show and how they’d simply disappear or windup somewhere after their appearance. Was there an incident that really stood out to you, motivating this investigation?
Tim Harrison: There were many faces and incidents that motivated me to investigate the “ambassador animal” phenomenon in the United States. Some that haunt me to this day are the endangered snow leopard cubs that Jack Hanna used on his appearances on morning television shows. After these shows, he used them for VIP interactions, paid photo opportunities, and his traveling roadshow.
Many of these cubs would soon die premature deaths, while others were discarded at non-public, non-AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) rescue facilities. It seems to me that these supposedly protected species were more endangered sitting on Jack Hanna’s lap than their counterparts in the wild.
The Knockturnal: You and your team infiltrated exotic animal auctions and spotted celebrity conservationists on TV, how were you able to infiltrate these auctions?
Tim Harrison: The fact these “auctions” are not illegal stuns many people. Any untrained person could just walk right in, buy a ticket, and purchase an endangered species without any training or official paperwork whatsoever.
At these auctions, there are no cameras allowed, so people can feel comfortable participating in these bizarre sales with anyone knowing. Using hidden cameras, my team and were able to document high-profile, television conservationists actually participating in the auction. Literally selling ambassador animals that were used on television and dumping them into the exotic pet trade. It was absolutely shocking.
The Knockturnal: What aspect of the investigation was the most challenging trying to find these cubs?
Tim Harrison: The most challenging aspect of this investigation was the complete lack of caring or compassion shown by the celebrity conservationists when they were told that their ambassador animals were missing. In fact, they were not even surprised in the least. Their lack of interest in helping me find these missing cats make our job nearly impossible, considering that they were the last people seen with these animals.
The Knockturnal: At one point, you do get an inside man (Cy) to help track down an exotic trader, how did you convince him to help you?
Tim Harrison: I did not have to convince Cy to try to help me find and get Olive, the tiger cub. He has a big heart for these animals and we share a passion for their safety. So he was immediately on board for finding Olive and getting her to a better situation. Cy is one of the most compassionate and brave men I have ever known. If it is not right, he wants to fix it for the benefit of the animals.
The Knockturnal: Have any of the morning shows or talk shows reached out to you about your findings?
Tim Harrison: As of this date, no television show hosts or producers have responded to me or my team’s inquiries.
The Knockturnal: How did you know Carole Baskin and get her involved in the film?
Tim Harrison: I have known Carole Baskin for over 10 years. We officially met when her organization, Big Cat Rescue, awarded me the Guardian Angel Award for helping big cats in the US. Carole is a brave, focused, and compassionate woman who has put her mission and heart on the frontline.
I have worked for the last 6 years on The Big Cat Public Safety Act with her and her Team. She is the leader in protecting big cats, it is an honor to work with her.
The Knockturnal: Can you explain The Big Cat Public Safety Act and its current status moving through the legislature?
Tim Harrison: The Big Cat Public Safety Act was designed to protect big cats, the public, and first responders. Whenever an incident occurs, be it a tiger walking through a neighborhood in California, Texas, or Ohio, it is the local police who are the first to respond and have to handle these extremely dangerous situations. Many times the big cats are shot to protect the public. With this legislation, there will be no more private ownership, private breeding, or exotic auctions. It sounds like common sense.
The Act passed in the House in December 2020, but the session ran out before the Senate could vote. We feel confident that after the release of The Conservation Game, the Act will pass again in the House and have a good shot making it through the Senate before the end of the year.
Since the documentary’s release, the Columbus Zoo was denied Association of Zoos and Aquariums due to a number of findings that were addressed in the film. The Conservation Game is available now in limited theaters, you can follow the documentary’s screening circuit here.