Just as we struggled to settle into quarantine and self-isolation, Netflix blessed the world with the limited series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The unlikely rise to fame of zookeeper Joe Exotic captivated millions—as did his alleged mistreatment of his big cats and manipulation of his husbands. A violent and charismatic subject, Exotic directly and indirectly put animal and human lives at risk.
But Joe might as well have taken a page from some sci-fi/fantasy tamers and keepers of wild and magical creatures. In the real world and in fantasy realms, individuals gather beasts mundane and magical to their side for power… and turn on them when the creatures are no longer useful.
Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce
This is the third volume in Pierce’s YA fantasy series The Immortals, which centers on young Daine Sarrasri’s developing magical relationship with animals. Emperor Mage finds Daine joining a diplomatic mission; she is brought along to sweeten up the rival emperor Ozorne’s adored pet birds. Pierce deftly juxtaposes Ozorne as a man who oppresses his people yet lavishes love on the animals in his possession.
The emperor has built a menagerie—to which Daine objects on principle. But she is astounded by the exquisite habitats in which the animals reside. Ozorne even enlists mages to duplicate the animals’ natural habitats in their respective enclosures. Yet not long after witnessing Ozorne’s meticulous care for the animals, Daine is confronted by the social segregation of his reign. Ozorne goes on to show that, while he does have a soft spot for animals, he’s willing to sacrifice everything to maintain his iron grip on his nation.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
This urban fantasy novel takes place in an alternate version of the city of Johannesburg. Citizens who are convicted of crimes are given animal familiars as punishment. Animals serve as scarlet letters for the “animalled,” who can be designated as “others” on sight.
At one point, our heroine, Zinzi, is accused of being involved in a client’s death. The accusatory police inspector claims Zinzi might well be guilty because “that’s what the thing on your back says,” referring to her conviction by way of the Sloth’s presence. Here, the government uses animals not to keep people safe from criminals, but to discriminate against reformed criminals. And those in power flaunt their misdeeds—the inspector brags about how many she’s shot in the line of duty.
Joe Exotic’s arch-rival, animal activist Carole Baskin, also maintained her moral superiority vis-à-vis animal rights—but she also made money off of collecting big cats and exhibiting them to the public.
Dark Moon by Meredith Ann Pierce
The Firebringer trilogy centers on the coming of age of the unicorn Jan, prince of the Vale. In this, the middle volume of the series, Jan is washed out to sea and, in soap opera-worthy twist, washes up on the shore of a foreign kingdom. However, the people of the kingdom where he lands mistake Jan as a messenger from their own god. Bereft of his own memory, an amnesiac Jan, who is given the moniker “Tai-shan,” has no choice but to go along with his new herd-mates’ way of life.
Jan’s “whole new world” involves giving up what he doesn’t consciously remember—a free life as a unicorn prince—and joining a captive group of hyper-intelligent horses. He trips, head over hoof, into becoming a part of a tame herd cultivated by a human ruler—called the chon—in honor of his patron god, Dai’chon. The chon rules his city—and access to the god—with an iron fist. His herds serve to glorify his control over secular and religious spheres… eerily reminiscent of Tiger King’s safari lord-cum-cultlike leader Doc Antle’s hold on his employees.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
A master of the standalone poetic fantasy, McKillip weaves another spellbinding tale with Eld. The story begins with a man called Myk in the kingdom of Eldwold. Myk retreated to the heights of the tallest mountains in the land, where he turned his “streak of wizardry” into animal mastery; McKillip describes him as beginning “a collection of wondrous, legendary animals.” Myk forces animals into entering his menagerie with a magical call. Ogam, too, forces his will on the world’s most exotic creatures, subduing the Falcon Ter after a struggle of wills and forcing the bird to give up his name. Ogam used that same magical coercion to “call” to him a wife who was afraid of him.
The wizards of Eld Mountain keep these animals for themselves. It’s with Ogam’s daughter, Sybel, that things begin to change. Raised primarily alone, she learns dominion over animals early. On the advice of her animal subjects, and by changing her family’s isolationist pattern, Sybel learns to care for people—and to truly love her animals.
Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon
This book’s titular character is a true heroine, not really represented in the Tiger King character schema of villains and antiheroes. In this sci-fi tale, Zenn is training to be an exoveterinarian, caring for alien species, on Mars. She thrives on studying how to help her creatures like the Indra, a seven-hundred-foot, snake-like creature, or whalehounds. But something goes wrong during her examinations of her cloister’s menagerie… and as trouble ensues, soon colonists begin to regard the alien creatures as “monsters,” not as allies.
Similarly, Joe Exotic’s exotic animals were his babies, his friends, his money-makers. That is, until they grew “wild,” living up to their non-human nature, or became too big to take pictures with. When the animals became an inconvenience—their natural instincts turning them from cuddly cuties into “monsters”—or their profitability dwindled, Joe reportedly had them killed. He “other”-ed his own beloved big cats in order to justify his cruelty.
A public historian, Carly Silver has written for BBC News, History Today, Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, The Atlantic, Narratively, ThoughtCo/About.com (for which she served as the ancient/classical history expert), Biblical Archaeology, Eidolon, All That’s Interesting, and other publications. She works as an associate editor at HarperCollins and resides in Brooklyn, New York.