No, what should shock everyone is the rapper’s decision, just months after Netflix’s blockbuster documentary series “Tiger King” exposed the exploitative big cat industry, to use live tigers and leopards in her video.
Perhaps it’s time to reiterate the crucial lesson that Americans should have learned after bingeing the horrifying antics of zoo operator Joe Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic): These animals are not for human entertainment. They do not belong in music videos. Every time celebrities use big cats or other exotic species for self-aggrandizement, they become complicit in the unethical treatment of animals.
It helps that the big cats featured in “WAP” were edited into the video and did not actually interact with the artists involved. So, contrary to what viewers saw, Cardi B did not caress the back of a snarling leopard and featured artist Megan Thee Stallion didn’t do the splits while white Bengal tigers prowled behind her. This is a step in the right direction — especially for Cardi B, who in 2017 borrowed a cheetah from a sultan in Dubai to film the music video for her breakout hit, “Bodak Yellow.” (She attempted to record the video while holding the cat on a leash, but after it nearly attacked her she settled for rapping next to it while the cheetah was chained to a pillar.)
Still, the presence of these animals is troubling. Where did these animals come from? What kind of handler produced them for the video? How were they treated when they were filmed? Animal rights activist Carole Baskin, herself a notorious personality from “Tiger King,” has questioned whether the video’s producers used “big cat pimps” — the type of unethical handlers that starve or hurt cats to make them stand on cue. (Cardi B’s record label and the video’s director have not responded to requests for comment.)
What we do know is that in using footage of these animals, the video perpetuates a culture that has allowed the mistreatment of big cats. Put it this way: What purpose do these cats serve in music videos? Why do celebrities use them to bolster their image or sex appeal?
The answer, of course, is that these animals exude a power and exoticism that have captured audiences for centuries. They also represent an unobtainable social status. Big cats, even in captivity, are dangerous, and maintaining them is extremely time consuming and expensive, as demonstrated by the small armies of overworked laborers at the featured zoos and the truckloads of expired Walmart meat in “Tiger King.” Being able to access the animals speaks to a conspicuous level of exclusivity and wealth. It doesn’t matter what a talented artist like Cardi B is doing in her music videos; viewers seeing the 400-pound predator pacing next to her are entranced by the person they know they could never be.
Such glamorization is at the root of everything wrong with the big cat industry. Wealthy people are willing to pay lots of money to take photos with tiger cubs to feed their social media followings. Others, perhaps not realizing the work involved in maintaining big cats, have purchased the animals as pets. The result, thanks to loose federal regulations on ownership of big cats, has been the proliferation of breeding and trafficking of these animals. Today, there are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild.
In too many cases, when big cat cubs outlive their usefulness, they have been killed. Others have been shipped off to private zoos, where they often live in cages far too small for their needs. At best, this industry has resulted in unethical treatment; at worse, it’s resulted in animal abuse and death.
What’s needed is a total change in the public perception of big cats. When we see celebrities posing with and handling these animals, the proper response should be repulsion. Some might wince at such a harsh condemnation of a fun music video, but, absent action from Congress or other regulators, the goal should be to reduce demand for interacting with big cats as much as possible.
Do not doubt the power of cultural and economic pressure. It is ultimately what convinced SeaWorld to phase out its orca program after the popular “Blackfish” documentary aired. Let’s hope such a movement can do the same for tigers in captivity, too.