In recent weeks, we’ve entered a world without professional sports and millions of people forced to remain in their homes. In other words, we’re in a time ripe for a weird Netflix show to become a cultural artifact.
Enter Tiger King, a docu-series exploring the bizarre world of Americans who own exotic animals, including hundreds of tigers and lions.
But what makes big cats so alluring to people anyways? Part of it is their unique intelligence, says Mike Mooring, a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene who studies jaguars in Costa Rica.
“I think that from time immemorial, people have had both this primeval fear coupled with a fascination with the big cats because they're mysterious,” said Mooring. “They come and go. You don't know where they are. They are elusive. They kind of pop out of the night and then they disappear.”
Mooring joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to whether big cats can be tamed, what makes these felines special, and how studying wildlife in Southern Africa led him to Christ.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #206
Let’s start this interview with you telling us about the first big cat that you saw up close and personal.
Mike Mooring: That's an interesting question because I must give the disclaimer that I'm not really a very good foil to Joe Exotic. I don't really get into small enclosures with large cats.
But actually, I grew up in New York City. I remember very well going to this Central Park Zoo, which is a tiny zoo, it’s only seven acres. But we loved it because it was something different from giant water bugs and the gray squirrels and pigeons and the normal wild urban wildlife that we were accustomed to.
And I distinctly remember going into the big cat block, which was basically a cement bunker with lots of bars. There'd be lots of people and it would just stink, it was just this very pungent odor of big cat, and they'd have the lions and whatever other cats they had there. So that was my first up-close and personal encounter because you are right there, they didn't have to separate you with moats and all the things they do now with naturalistic enclosures. I mean, you were just right there in that little building.
I have since done my dissertation work and post-doc in Southern Africa. So I was in Zimbabwe and South Africa and Namibia and Kenya. So I've seen lions and cheetahs and leopards—I haven't seen tigers cause you're not found in Africa—but all the African cats. I have had an opportunity to see a few in the States and in Costa Rica in some of the places I've worked.
I’ve been doing this work in Costa Rica for 10 years, and the cats are elusive. There's a reason why they're known as elusive mammals. You just don't see them. They're either nocturnal or they're hiding. And so the way we actually do our research is we put up camera traps. They're basically automatic cameras that we place on trails and so forth that have an infrared sensor and they take a picture or possibly a video when the animal passes by.
We’ve seen a lot of cats in our cameras from jaguars, which is third-largest big cat after tigers and African lions and the largest in the New World, all the way down to a kind of house-cat-sized spotted cat, known as the oncilla with six species in Costa Rica.
Can you tell us more about your early research and the work you’ve done?
Mike Mooring: So I actually started out with herbivores like deer and antelope. So I’m not at all a big cat, carnivore guy. Some of my colleagues would describe my study animals as cat food because that's what they eat, you know?
Impala are a great animal, a medium-sized antelope and they're very common. And I was studying them because they have a very interesting behavior in that they groom themselves and one another and they do it to remove ticks. And so I was actually studying tick-removal behavior and that actually ended up being a kind of an ongoing project. And then from there, I studied bison and elk and deer and moose.
[My students and I studied bison in Nebraska for seven years.] And then that ended. But we had just started a course that went down to Costa Rica and had a fantastic experience with our students. And when we came back to Nebraska for the study and learned this summer was the last, we started to think, is there anything we can do in Costa Rica? And so we started talking with colleagues and had the idea of putting up some trail cameras because no one had done a study of mammals in this area before.
There are probably some herbivores who would be in your elusive mammal category?
Mike Mooring: Yeah, the tapir would be one. And in fact, tapirs are a kind of a big player or literally a big player in those parts. For those who are not familiar, tapirs are related to rhinos and horses and they are the largest animal in South America. They can reach 600 pounds. We get a lot of them in our cameras actually.
Are you still having these moments where your breath is taken away by an encounter with nature? Have you become more blasé or where do those moments of joy and awe come from now that you've been years and years into this?
Mike Mooring: My testimony is that I was really drawn to God through nature, not the other way around. I saw God in nature, and I came to Christ in Zimbabwe and I got married in Zimbabwe. Everything happened there because that's where I felt the Lord speak to me—through his creation and through these animals.
I call myself an enthusiastic amateur birder. I kind of know what I've seen, but I kind of forget what I've seen too. So it's cool because I see a beautiful bird and it's like, “Oh wow, what's that? Oh yeah, I've seen that one before.” And I think in the safari industry, there are people that are just trying to check things off the list and they call them “checkers.” That's certainly not me.
I mean, I remember my wife and I going for a safari drive in Zimbabwe and there really weren't any large animals out at all, and we ended up investigating dung beetles. That was fascinating, it was fun! We just stopped and there was some ellie (elephant) poop on the ground and it's like, “Dung beetles, this is cool!”
I think that there is a joy, an awe and wonder, in wild animals just doing their thing, and having the opportunity to kind of take a peek at what they're doing.
Obviously, you've studied lots of different types of mammals. What really makes a big cat unique or special compared to other mammals?
Mike Mooring: Big cats—all cats are really—are really interesting because if you look at the world of the carnivores, most carnivores eat something besides meat. They'll eat some fruit or they'll eat some vegetation, they'll be more opportunistic.
But cats, they eat meat. They are meat-eaters, they are obligate meat-eaters. That's all they eat. And if you take a look at the inside of a cat's mouth—which you want to be careful about doing when we're talking about the big cats—you can see all their teeth are meat-eating teeth. And they've got huge jaws and their whole skull morphology is designed to take a chomp out of another animal.
And that's also true of their hunting strategy. Cats are primarily ambush predators. There are exceptions, the cheetah is probably the biggest exception because while they are ambush predators, they can run really fast to get their prey. And lions are kind of ambush predators, but they work in groups as cooperative hunters.
Most of the cats in the world, the five big cat species of cats—which tigers are the big one, then African lions, the jaguar is third, then the leopard and then the snow leopard—plus the 41 smaller species are all entirely meat-eaters. They're ambush predators. They tend to have a solitary lifestyle, and that also really makes them different from a lot of the animals that we think about that live in groups (again, lions being the big exception to that).
Is there anything that makes them unique from an intelligence point of view too?
Mike Mooring: I think we have to be careful when we talk about animal intelligence because their intelligence is based on what they need to do to be successful in life. The kind of things that we would think of as indicating intelligence—abstract kinds of calculations and being able to remember and predict into the future and so forth—they have that superbly honed, but it’s to accomplish their purpose, which is basically to catch their prey and to be successful in defending their territory, in mating, and reproducing.
Think of the difference between a dog and a cat. If you think about a dog, you think, “Oh, dogs are really intelligent. We can teach them tricks.” Have you ever tried to teach a cat a trick? I mean, you could say, “Oh, those cats, they’re just stupid. You can't teach them a trick.” Well, there's a reason for that. It’s because dogs have a social intelligence that cats don't have because they're not social. So basically their social intelligence is “get away from me or kill you”. Whereas as canids in general and dogs specifically are brilliant at that social interactions. As are primates, which is why we're so social as well.
So, it's a different kind of intelligence, but they'd certainly have that unique intelligence. And it's also part of the allure and why people attracted to big cats. I think that from time immemorial, people have had both this primeval fear coupled with a fascination with the big cats because they're mysterious. They come and go. You don't know where they are. They are elusive. They kind of pop out of the night and then they disappear. We know they're extremely powerful. There’s all that mixed into what attracts us and what makes them special and draws us to try to understand them better. And the fact is, for most of these, we just don't know a lot about most of these species because they're elusive. We can't just follow them around in a Land Rover on the African savannah. They just slink into the woods and they're gone.
So it's really been through a lot of new technology—radio tracking, satellite collars, and camera traps and so forth—that we're actually finally beginning to learn a little bit more about them.
Besides size are there significant differences between the big cats and some of the smaller cats? What separates a big cat from the rest?
The classic definition of what makes a big cat, meaning a Panthera cat—Panthera tigris (tiger), Panthera leo (lion), Panthera onca (jaguar) are the three big cats—is their ability to roar. They have the hyoid apparatus, which is part of their vocal apparatus, that enables them to roar. So your kitty at home is not going to be able to roar. All cats can purr, but not roar. So panthers—they big, but they’re not in that big cat category that can roar.
The big difference or kind of unique thing in the big cat world is the difference between the lions and most of these other cats because they're so social. They are found in large prides, they don't really have fear of people or anything else, and so it's fairly easy to observe them.
There are not so many studies done on jaguars because we just don't ever see them, unless by chance or it's trying to kill your cow or something like that. In which case, most ranchers’ response is to try to kill the jaguar. So in terms of behavior, what you're talking about is a solitary animal roaming around very large ranges. We’re just starting trying to find out about when they're active and their activity cycles.
Many of them are nocturnal. Jaguar are actually a lot more diurnal than we previously thought. But they're solitary animals. So the only time you'll see an adult with other individuals in terms of a big cat in the case of the jaguar is when they are mating or when the mother is with one or two kittens.
When I've been watching Tiger King, you see a lot of humans horsing around with these animals. What do you make of these people who say they have these very close relationships with these animals?
Mike Mooring: Obviously it takes a little bit of showmanship or show-offship to go into that situation with an animal that is quite dangerous and just horse around with it.
There are people who do this professionally as trainers, for example, for animals that are used in movies and they do have a relationship, I would say a strong relationship, with that animal because they have to be able to control that animal. If they can't control the animal, that would be a disaster. That really takes a lot of knowledge of animal behavior.
I can't really speak for how much knowledge of animal behavior Joe Exotic. He obviously has had to have enough understanding of the behavior of those tigers to be able to survive. And so, I would respect that. I mean, my take on this is that is in the vast majority of the cases on the show, it's not that the cat just loves the trainer or Joe Exotic or whoever, but it's because they've learned through a conditioning process of punishment and reward that they better act this way or it's going to go badly for them.
It's a learning process. And that's kind of what taming is. People say, “Oh, it's a tame kitty. It's a tame tiger.” Well, no, it's not. it may be tame, which means it's learned to behave itself because of conditioning, which is basically learning how to avoid aversive behavior and how to do behaviors that will elicit a reward. But it's still a wild animal. They still have a very strong predatory instinct.
I think that what you always have to keep in mind is that they may look like they're just playing and having a jolly good time, but that trainer or whatever has got to really know what they're doing and really control the situation because it is a wild animal that's totally capable of completely destroying that person if things get out of hand.
So don't do this at home is the message.
How do you view right now the relationship between these animals that are out there in the earth and us humans who are also out there and in the earth?
Mike Mooring: I grew up in New York City. So I'm not going to make a claim that I grew up in harmony with nature or that I just always wanted to be in harmony with these animals.
My maternal grandfather was actually a pastor in Jamestown, New York, and then he would switch churches and preach at a church in Hillsboro, New Hampshire every summer. And so we'd go to New Hampshire in the summer. And of course, for a kid that grows up in the inner city to go to New Hampshire was like paradise. And we would stay either on a lake or at a big old colonial farmhouse. Outside the Central Park Zoo, this was my first encounter was with animals.
And then as I had the opportunity to go hiking and to spend time in the bush and in the wild, I would see animals that were wild and there was always the awe and wonder. It's kind of hard to describe, it’s just something that's been very pleasing and very fulfilling. To just be able to see nature and see wild animals in their element. Which is something that sadly a lot of folks growing up don't see cause we're an increasingly urbanized society. Over 50 percent of the world's population lives in the city and most of them aren't going to see that.
For most of the time I've been doing animal behavior research, my research has been largely noninvasive, meaning that it's been mostly behavioral observation. So, I'm sitting on a bluff overlooking a meadow, or maybe in a vehicle looking at bison or whatever. Maybe I have a telescope that I'm using, but I'm basically observing. So spending hours and hours of every day just watching animals do what they do.
And most of the time, by the way, animals don't do a whole lot of exciting things out there. And I would say I really never got bored. I just like being there. Being there with the animals and feeling like I could kind of, in some way, join their world.
How would you say that your animal behavior research has changed how you understood God and how God has made you to be?
Mike Mooring: One of the things that that I think that that you have to come away with at some point is that my perspective on life is very limited. We’ve got our plans, we've got the things that we want to do, we've got our to-do list, got our aspirations and so forth, but they're actually kind of small compared with the big picture.
For me, I think seeing that big picture was seeing the big picture of the creation, of nature, of these animals and plants and trees, and just this massive tableau of life. I'm just a speck in that, I'm like a fly on the wall observing those things. And so that's one aspect. That God's doing something bigger than just trying to meet my aspirations and make me happy and so forth. There's something bigger there. But also there's this aspect of if I can just be there and be a part of this thing that God is doing, that's enough. That's more than enough. That's very fulfilling.
When I first became a Christian, I was kind of a little bit nervous, a little bit scared that God would ask me to do something that I didn't want to, like go to an urban area, go away from the bush and go away from nature. And in fact, that's what I do. I'm in an urban area. I teach in San Diego at a college. But I realize that the greatest joy is being able to fulfill God's purpose for your life, whatever that is. And the thing is, we probably, or at least I, have precious little understanding of what that is.
I wonder if the elusiveness of some of these cats, and trying to suss out what these animals are like, is somewhat a little bit like trying to understand the elusiveness of God. He's very approachable, but yet he is very mysterious too. Is there anything along those lines for you?
Mike Mooring: Those are observations that I can definitely identify with. When I went to Zimbabwe as a Ph.D. student, I was agnostic and I wasn't looking for God. And that just happened. It happened through just realizing that there was a bigger picture than just me, and I didn't know whether to call that God or nature or something else, but I came to realize through other people the proper names and that this is the God of the universe.
One of the things that’s interesting about doing conservation work, trying to know what kind of animals we have so that we can better protect them, is that you can't do conservation without people. You can know all about every jaguar in the forest and not be able to save them because, for whatever reason, people don't value them, and they're not protected or a habitat is lost or what have you. Just doing research is not enough. It'll never be enough.
Conservation, which in my world, is how I see caring for creation, caring for God's creation. And conservation of his creatures and these ecosystems, that always involves people. So the work that we do is community-based conservation. We share with the community to try to instill that sense of stewardship.
Reaching out to other people is something that I think is a unique ability that these animals have. People who maybe would never work with us if we said, “Hey, we're a bunch of Christians and we want to study some animals” are absolutely delighted to work with us because we're going to help them conserve the animals that they really care about. The point here is that these animals can act as a bridge to sharing God with people.
I mean, I always pray that in some way God would shine his light on the people that we work with. I think that that's another way of showing that if we love the creation, that speaks of a love for the Creator. I think that the two go together. They are kind of this organic whole that can really speak into the lives of, of people that we, that we care about, and we want them to know God better.
Ted Olsen: That reminds me of an article ran in CT about a year ago about God loving our protective species and the poachers who kill them.
Just to wrap our conversation and put you on the spot for a little bit, is there a really good big cat story that you have that you would want our listeners to know.
Mike Mooring: Okay, this is the best story I can give you being put on the spot on short notice. So I kind of gave you a little bit of the backstory that in 2009 we were told that our bison research was going to wrap up. And so in 2010, I show up with my students in Costa Rica, and it's like this is an experiment. This is kind of like our pilot study, meaning that we have no idea if this is going to work or not.
And so we show up in this high-elevation mountain community, which is also an ecotourism center. We have 10 cameras and we're just going to put up some cameras and see what happens, right? We were there for about eight weeks and as the weeks went on, we got lots in lots and lots of pictures of raccoons. And we kind of realized that probably wasn't going to make a very exciting wrap up meeting with the community.
And so I'm getting a little bit desperate here. We're literally down to the wire, it's like a couple of days before the community meeting. The whole community is going to come and we're going to give our report. And then we get this picture from one of our cameras. It's actually one of the cameras that was located a little bit higher up on the mountain. We get this picture of this puma coming at the camera. It's a beautiful picture.
Okay, now we can go forward and have something to show them. And so we prepared for our meeting. The morning of the meeting, one of my students said, “Hey, let's just check the cameras one more time.” And we look at the pictures and the same camera where the puma was what I initially thought was a big black dog.
But then we look at it again and we look at it again… it's a jaguar. And I sent it to a colleague at one of the universities and he confirmed, “Yes, that's a jaguar.” We actually showed it that evening and it was electrifying, to say the least. Because we're talking about they had never ever seen pictures from the forest of the animals there. To actually see a jaguar? Maybe a puma would have been good, right? And it was good. But a jaguar, and not only a jaguar, but a black jaguar.
Ever since that time, those community meetings are much anticipated and we just love the relationship we have with the people there, and it's all because of that black jaguar that we got on that camera at the 11th hour on the last day before we were about to have our meeting and then take off.