After ‘Tiger King,’ Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara Urge Congress to Protect Big Cats

The actors have signed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which is hoping to get a boost in visibility in the wake of "Tiger King" popularity.
Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix
Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix

The success of Netflix’s “Tiger King” has resulted in dozens of celebrities coming together to urge the U.S. government to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. The proposed bill “prohibits the private ownership of big cats, direct public contact, and dangerous public interactions with big cats such as cub petting.” The Big Cat Public Safety Act had little traction when first introduced in 2019 but now has gotten a handful of celebrity endorsements in the wake of the popularity of “Tiger King.” Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Glenn Close, Justin Theroux, and more have joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund to sign an open letter to congress members urging them to pass the bill.

The letter was drafted by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” The non-fiction feature investigated the mistreatment of killer whales at Sea World and forced the theme park to make policy changes and update the conditions of its parks. Cowperthwaite is hoping “Tiger King” has a similar effect on big cat owners across the country. One of the big criticisms about “Tiger King” is that it glossed over the widespread mistreatment facing big cats. “Tiger King” breakout subject Joe Exotic has been accused of mishandling big cats and malnourishing them. Celebrities such as recent Oscar winner Phoenix are hoping the popularity of “Tiger King” can boost the visibility of the Big Cat Public Safety Act and get it passed.

“Documentaries can be powerful forces for change, sometimes through a call to action and other times simply by telling a story that entertains, creating a window into a world viewers weren’t previously aware of,” Cowperthwaite said in a statement (via Variety). “But at some point, there is a pivot and the passion of their millions of viewers lands somewhere useful. ‘Tiger King’ and its audience can do that now. The world of big cat captivity requires a call to action.”

The open letter signed by Phoenix, Mara, and more reads: “We are proud to stand with ‘Blackfish’ director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Animal Legal Defense Fund in support of the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Shockingly, there are thousands more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are left in the wild.”

The letter describes some of the mistreatment facing big cats under private ownership, including how “operations that breed tigers forcefully separate newborn cubs from their mothers — sometimes within minutes of birth — to use them in expensive photo opportunities with tourists.”

“Because cubs can only be ‘handled’ for a few months, drugging tigers to be compliant and docile is commonplace,” the letter continues. “When they get too old and their existence is no longer profitable, they are often irresponsibly sold into the pet trade or killed. Tigers and other big cats are apex predators who have complex physical and psychological needs and desires. Depriving them of expressing their natural instincts is inhumane.”

Read the full open letter on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s website. Additional signees include Kate Mara, Kim Basinger, Paul Wesley, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Walken, Alison Pill, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Silverman, and Jenny Slate, among others.

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