Netflix's ‘Tiger King’ is drawing national attention to a Northeast Indiana animal sanctuary

While Netflix’s popular “Tiger King” series might have entranced audiences worldwide with “murder, mayhem, and madness,” it’s also driving some national attention to an animal sanctuary in Northeast Indiana.

Since 2000, Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion has been rescuing big cats and other exotic animals from roadside zoos, pay-to-play operations, and other exploitive practices. It’s even rescued cats from Dennis Hill, the Flat Rock, Ind., backyard tiger breeder who made a cameo appearance in “Tiger King.” Brown

Now, Black Pine is getting some love from animal advocates across the U.S. wanting to stop some of the cruel practices exposed in the Netflix series.

While most of “Tiger King” was devoted to the dramatic and infamous feud between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, it did highlight a few key stats about big cats that have grabbed the public’s attention. Namely: There are more tigers living in captivity in the U.S. than the 4,000 remaining in the wild.

Trish Brown, Executive Director of Black Pine Animal Sanctuary, says its facts like these that have had people calling and emailing the nonprofit sanctuary and have helped drive donations at a time when they are otherwise short on funds and visitors during the pandemic.

“We’ve actually seen an increase in people following us on social media, a lot of new donors, and it’s opened up a lot of new windows for us to talk about what we do,” Brown says.

When it comes to helping exotic species in Indiana, Black Pine has a small, but mighty role to play. While the sanctuary is home to more than 100 animals, representing 60 different species (including seven tigers), it’s still considered one of the smaller sanctuaries in the U.S. Even so, its work and advocacy are significant due to Indiana’s lax laws on the ownership of exotic animals, making the state a “hotspot” for illegal captivity, Brown says.

“Most of the states around us have started restricting the private ownership of exotic animals, but Indiana doesn’t have such legislation so that activity has moved here,” she explains.

Black Pine Animal Sanctuary is also home to big cats like cougars.

Brown says that while owning an exotic animal might sound outlandish to some, it’s surprisingly easy to accomplish if you have the money.

“It’s a big industry,” she says. “People think, ‘Oh, you can’t just buy a tiger.’ But if you get on Craigslist and look hard enough, you’re going to be able to find a tiger.”

She explains that Black Pine gets many of its animals from people who purchase exotics and don’t have the knowledge or money to take care of them. She’s seen tigers who have come from living in dog kennels or are starved from being fed pet food instead of the meat their diets require.

“It takes about 1,000 pounds of meat to feed our animals here per week,” she says, just to put things into perspective.

Big cats like tigers require hearty diets of meat.

To help restrict the unlawful ownership and abuse of exotic animals in Indiana, Brown has been working with the Humane Society of the U.S. to push House Bill 1200, introduced by Reps. David Abbott and Chris Campbell in early 2020. But the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

“We’ll be coming back to that next year,” Brown says.

A former city councilwoman and Main Street director in her hometown Warsaw, she explains that along with a love for animals, another reason she enjoys working at Black Pine is that it gives her a way to make a difference in her community—and the world, at large.

That leads to the second connection between Black Pine and “Tiger King.” Brown is partnering with Howard Baskin, Carole Baskin’s husband and Secretary/Treasurer/Advisory Board Chairman of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., to promote federal legislation preventing the private ownership of big cats, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Brown says she met the Baskins last year when Black Pine hosted the annual Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance Conference, and they were in attendance. While she doesn’t know Carole well, she has been working closely with Howard to get sponsorship for the legislation in Washington.

“Of course, Congress has a lot of other things on their minds right now,” Brown notes. “But (‘Tiger King’) has drawn attention to the private ownership of big cats.”

Walter the bobcat takes shelter at BPAS.

While the Netflix series portrayed Howard and Carole in a questionable light (to say the least), Brown reached out to Howard after the series was released and found that he was still optimistic.

“He said, ‘Hey, it’s bringing more attention to the bill,’” Brown paraphrases. “Hopefully, it will help us get the bill passed.”

While Brown tries to avoid drama in the big cat world herself, it’s not easy, she says. Even Black Pine’s previous director was threatened and trolled by Joe Exotic, the show’s central character.

“He had a website call ‘scam-tuaries’ that had photos of our sanctuary on there, so it’s hard to avoid the drama when you’ve got somebody so blatantly on the attack,” Brown says.

Even so, proving the legitimacy of Black Pine’s work is as simple as pointing to its certifications and practices, she notes.

Black Pine is a member of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s also the only multi-species sanctuary in the Midwest to have that certification, Brown points out. Nefertiti the tiger plays in the northeast Indiana snow.

While the sanctuary does allow visitors to take educational “Field Trips” and “Behind the Scenes” tours to learn about the animals it rescues, it doesn’t use animals as “entertainment” or offer any petting opportunities, Brown says. These are two key factors that can help the public distinguish between “good sanctuaries” and harmful operations, she notes. And zookeepers across the country supporting Black Pine seem to agree.

Brown says that one practice that is particularly harmful to the preservation of big cats is cub petting.

“It’s a huge inhumane industry,” she explains. “Cubs in the wild would spend up to two years with their mother. They wouldn’t be removed from their right after birth.” 

On top of that, many people offering cub petting are also breeding cubs specifically for the practice, and then killing or illegally selling them after they’ve outlived their usefulness at a mere 12- to 16-weeks.

As people become more aware of the deeper issues surrounding big cats, Brown hopes it will continue to move the needle on legislation outlawing these practices. For now, she’s focused on keeping her own animals and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic after it was discovered that tigers and other animals are susceptible to catching the virus from humans.

Brown says her team hopes to open the sanctuary to visitors slowly and cautiously later this summer, but only time will tell what’s feasible. In the meantime, they're thankful for the influx of donations to support their staff and animals.

“We have been really blessed the last two months,” Brown says. “We lost all of our income from not being able to open the first of May, and we haven’t been able to actively pursue a lot of sponsorships because our sponsors have been putting everything on hold. So we have had to rely heavily on donations, and people have been incredibly kind and generous.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.