As an animal-care specialist at the Beardsley Zoo, Bethany Thatcher takes care of the Bridgeport facility's two Amur tigers, Reka and Zeya, sisters born in 2017, as well as its Amur leopards. Unlike the roadside zoos depicted in Netflix’s hit documentary series Tiger King, the Beardsley Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and must meet strict guidelines for animal care and welfare. Currently closed because of the coronavirus, the zoo and staff members have been posting many videos from the park. Like other museums and arts and education attractions, the zoo is struggling without visitor revenue and is desperate for donations. We recently spoke with Thatcher via Facetime about the documentary and the dangerous tiger care depicted on it. We also speak with Gregg Dancho, the zoo’s director, below.

Bethany Thatcher

Sandy Hook resident Bethany Thatcher, an animal care specialist at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo, is seen with Reka, a 250-pound Amur tiger. Thatcher was checking out Reka’s reaction to her mask -- something she wouldn’t normally wear. The mask is part of her gear now, one of many changes because of coronavirus concerns. “I don’t know if she knew who I was right away, but she was staring at my face more than she normally would,” Thatcher said, of the 2-year-old tiger.

What is your reaction to Tiger King?

The fact that it exists stresses me out. I’m afraid of the ideas it’s going to give people. I am interested in what people take away from it. I forget which celebrity said, well, I didn't know you could get a tiger for just four grand. That’s what some people take away from it. Other people see the animal abuse. Other people are concerned about the human abuse. I physically can’t watch it. So I’m not going to have educated opinions on that documentary, just the stuff that I’ve heard, I will throw up. So I can’t look at it…

Because of the treatment of animals? 

Exactly. I’m really interested in the human side of the story. I love true crime and mystery and stuff like that but things like shooting tigers, squeezing cubs through mesh as the mom is still giving birth, handing the cubs to people when they’re a few days old. [Zookeeper Joe Exotic] complaining that they’re screaming all night and he can’t get any sleep. I’ve raised cubs; they don’t scream if they’re not hungry, so they were hungry. I would never take cubs away from a mom that wants them. The only time we’ve pulled cubs is because the parents weren’t able to raise them. We did that under very strict guidelines. No one could go near them except for the people raising them. …There were no photo opportunities or taking them places, or doing anything to exploit them like that. My opinion of people who use their animals for profit couldn’t be lower. It makes me sick. 

It’s tough because, on the one hand, the documentary exposed some of that mistreatment, but it may have also glorified some of that behavior, and may lead to misconceptions.

My other fear is that people will lump all animal-care facilities into places like that. There’s a vast difference between people who are private or exotic pet owners and people who work for and support accredited facilities, be it AZA like the Beardsley Zoo or [the Zoological Association of America] like some other zoos around the country, and New York has its own accreditation process. Not to say that all non-accredited places are bad, but if you’re accredited you can’t be like that. Animal welfare is the No. 1 priority and we are checked on it all the time. We’re held accountable for our actions, whereas non-accredited places aren’t, so there’s a bigger risk for exploiting the animals.

Tiger sisters

Beardsley Zoo's two Amur tigers, sister Reka and Zeya.

What’s a responsible way to keep tigers as opposed to what we see on Tiger King?

There are a lot of problems with privately owned sanctuaries. One of the big ones is going in with the dangerous cats. I don’t go in with my cats. I hand-raised four out of the five cats that I take care of. They look at me as one of their mothers. I would not go in with them, ever. I love those tiger cubs more than I can even describe, and I believe they love me also, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t kill me. That’s one major thing for both human and animal welfare going in with dangerous animals like that, it’s putting everyone’s safety at risk. They’re not thinking about the welfare of their animals. It’s more of a tough guy, I own all these tigers, look at me, look how amazing I am. I can go in with all of these animals. That sort of way of dealing with them is just ignorant. It’s foolish and it usually ends in disaster. 

The documentary features a lot of characters around big cats who are very intriguing, sometimes in a horrifying way. Have you encountered those kinds of characters in what you do? 

Yes. We do try to weed them out. I do personally know a few people that shouldn’t be around big cats but they are. … The two of us that work with them on a daily basis take them very seriously. We know the danger. We don’t think the cat has a [special] connection with us. I do have a connection with them, but I don’t share my thoughts with them and communicate with them in that way. The people that believe, oh the animal won’t hurt me because we understand each other, that’s very dangerous. And a lot of these private owners think that. They think, oh well, he loves me, he won’t hurt me. That’s certainly not the case. It’s an apex predator — you don’t want to be going in with it, or doing anything like that. As far as taking new people into the community, we have a very strict screening process. I’ve been working at the zoo for 15 years. Usually within five minutes of meeting someone I can tell if they’re a tiger petter. If they are we don’t let them anywhere near our facility. 

What are the personalities like of the big cats you work with? 

Tigers and leopards are very different creatures. It’s interesting because you think a big cat is a big cat. If you’re going to compare them to a dog, tigers are like golden retriever puppies. They're big and fluffy, they’re very dangerous, but they’re very happy to see you all the time rubbing on the fence and rolling on their backs and acting like big cute pets. The leopards are very much more high strung, very high energy. … That’s why I like the tigers; they’re calm, they’re excited to see me but they're like a calming presence. They’re just doing their own thing and chilling out. And, of course, they’re tigers, so there's that wow factor. 


 

TALKING WITH THE ZOO'S DIRECTOR

Greg Doncho

Gregg Dancho, Beardsley Zoo’s director, with a tiger cub. 

Gregg Dancho, Beardsley Zoo’s director, says his zoo works with an eye “to keeping these animals alive on our planet.” In a video conversation with Connecticut Magazine, he discussed some of the many things that differentiate a facility like the Beardsley Zoo with those depicted in Tiger King.

On breeding big cats … 

When Beardsley participates in breeding programs, it is done in accordance with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, which includes, among other stringent requirements, that the breeding animals’ lineage is clearly documented to avoid inbreeding, Dancho says. “When you have an endangered species, you have a limited gene pool,” Dancho says. He adds that many tigers in the U.S. are descendants of the same small group of tigers brought into the country decades ago, so the genetic diversity at private zoos is limited and breeding without documentation is dangerous.

On other warning signs … 

Any facility that frequently breeds its tigers is likely problematic, Dancho says. “There’s no regulation within those types of places … all they care about is getting babies.” He also says to watch out for mixed breeds and white tigers, which are a genetic mutation and “not something we want to see in a population.” 

On big cats catching the coronavirus … 

Several tigers at the Bronx Zoo contracted the coronavirus. To protect the tigers in Bridgeport, Dancho says staff members are maintaining social distancing practices, as they do with humans. They’re also wearing masks and gloves when they go near the tiger cages to feed them. Fortunately, the tigers who came down with the virus in the Bronx are recovering. “There’s no lasting effects that they can see,” Dancho says. 

On cats’ mental health … 

“We’ve learned that mental health is very important for these animals,” Dancho says. “Keeping them active, keeping them thinking about something else besides eating and sleeping is good for them.”

 

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University