Instagram’s most famous animal rescue foundation is beloved by celebrities and millions of fans, and completely and utterly terrifying. Scrolling through the Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ feed is like seeing the beginning of Grizzly Man play out on social media.
On this season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Khloe Kardashian and Kendall Jenner visit the Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ site with their mother Kris’ boyfriend. They tussle on the floor with cubs, and one nibbles on Khloe’s shoe as she holds up her phone. Khloe accompanies the owner, Eduardo “Big Papa” Serio, into the enclosure of grown lions, where they briefly surround her. He calls her brave.
Paris Hilton, Kaley Cuoco, Lewis Black, Debra Messing, Kellan Lutz, the Backstreet Boys and Kate Walsh have also visited Serio’s compound and played with the animals he owns.
Since launching in 2013, Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ has cultivated celebrity fans and 4.3 million Instagram followers with photos of Serio and his guests cuddling with a growing collection of over 200 lynxes, pumas, lions, leopards, jaguars and tigers. Serio’s Mexico compound is becoming a buzzy destination, where the rich and famous can be photographed chilling with exotic animals without feeling guilty about it. These animals were rescued, after all. It’s raising awareness. It’s practically charity.
Except that Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ is not a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which is the standard-bearer in independent sanctuary accreditors. Getting an accreditation doesn’t mean a sanctuary is safe — fatal big cat attacks have occurred on sanctuaries with this recognition — but Serio’s heavily publicised cat compound stands out as particularly irresponsible because he allows untrained visitors to frolic with full-grown cats. That’s pretty much the opposite of what the GFAS recommends:
Humans do not enter enclosures with felids. Direct physical interaction is limited to protected forms of contact, by experienced personnel, to minimise the risk of injury
Serio, who calls these alpha predators his “babies” and “angels”, claims to rescue them from circuses, breeders and other dismal circumstances. But most of their origins are not publicly documented, as blogger Jacalyn Beales recently pointed out. Serio also admits to buying some cubs from private breeders, and refuses to spay or neuter the animals on the grounds that it denies them “a natural life”.
As his followers continue to rise, the idea that it’s cool for people to interact with big cats as long as they’re rescued with love spreads. As though, somehow, human intention has an iota of sway over whether a cat decides to maul you or not.
You can visit the compound even if you’re not a celebrity, as long as you sign up to donate $US1000 ($1433) per month indefinitely. That does not include air or ground transportation. If you sign up for the $US500 ($716) per month plan, you can get a “FaceTime call with your baby”.
In addition to his recent reality TV exposure, most mainstream press around Serio has been positive. Vogue wrote a fawning travelogue about Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ that shrugs off potential injuries:
One attacks a loose sweater, another gnaws on my jacket cuff, one is on the waistband of my jeans, another pulls at my socks, while fingers are a favourite…T-shirts are pierced with teeth holes at best, and shredded to rags at worst (luckily I had the foresight not to pack Céline). My arms and legs are bruised and grazed, but the experience is worth every minor injury.
This is a strange and dangerous setup. Serio did not work in conservations before starting to bulk-buy big cats. In the official origin story, Serio is morally compelled to save a baby jaguar from a lifetime of for-profit photo ops:
While in Monterrey, he received a call from, his cousin, an animal expert with over 25 years of experience, sharing his frustration that a pet store was selling a baby black Jaguar with the purpose of drugging it and having it pose for photographs as a source of income. Eduardo, who always believed in equality and proper treatment of all beings, jumped at this opportunity and rescued Cielo from a life of captivity. That single event of selflessness and love gave birth to what today is The Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ Foundation.
Rescuing an animal from a life of photo-ops only to give it a life of photo-ops is blinkered behaviour. Quickly buying over 100 exotic animals with no experience in keeping them and no actual place to put them is hoarding, not helping. While Serio plans to create a 3000-acre “Stage 3” area for the mature cats, according to the Black Jaguar-White Tiger website, he has just eight acres of finished enclosures fully ready for his burgeoning horde of animals.
On its “FAQ” page, Black Jaguar White Tiger emphasises that other people could get hurt if they keep cats in this way — but insists that the cats will not turn on Serio and the sanctuary staff because a “bond of pure and innocent love” keeps them “living harmoniously together”.
This ignores the very real threat big cats in captivity pose for humans. Remember when Siegfried and Roy’s Roy Horn got mauled by the tiger he’d worked with for years? There are 755 recorded incidents involving humans and captive big cats since 1990 in the US alone, according to Big Cat Rescue. In addition to deaths in zoos, people get attacked at sanctuaries without adequate safety barriers between humans and cats.
This is how one of Serio’s friends described visiting the adult lion enclosure:
We are all mesmerised by the beauty of these animals and the incredible efforts made to built this oasis and give these felines a second chance; suddenly Eduardo asks me if I want to play with two adult lions…before I could even think it through, he opens a gate to one of the enclosures and two fully grown lions come charging in our area and plop themselves just next to my feet. The combination of sheer terror and adrenaline was paralyzing, but I after a few moments I am compelled to pet the 227kg. beasts and finally relax enough to start taking photos with my mates…equally terrified. That, of course, is until one of the lions decided that, yet again, my leg looks like a delicious snack and in a split-second movement, the lion turns around and locks his jaws on my ankle (in a playful way of course, if the cat was serious he could snap my leg apart with no effort at all). Eduardo, who consistently keeps a watchful eye on all of us and the animals, doesn’t miss a beat and quickly grabs the lions jaws and pry them open releasing my skinny and now dented ankle. I’ll take that as a sign that it’s time to leave before I turn into a meal; but not before watching Eduardo lying on the ground playing with 1-2-3 lions on top of him as if they were house cats!!
Sounds incredibly reckless and horrifying! But hey, Lance Bass is down:
Serio’s delusional thinking isn’t limited to imagining himself as a cat saviour. He recently posted a job offering for an assistant — females only, and no psychology majors. Here he is explaining why:
Regarding Psychologists there are several reasons, both personal and a scientific one, so I’ll stick to the scientific one: I Love Sigmund Freud, I have read absolutely all his work, and I agree with most of it, but in a point that he is completely right is where he said that all people interested in studying Psychology in order to be of help to the rest, they must have the discipline and objectivity of a Medical background, because only like that will those people be sober enough to stop creating castles in the sky. If not, they would only be projecting themselves unto others in order to try to understand themselves. And trust me, it’s not all fun and games what I do. I need very sober and centered humans around. I encourage anyone interested on this point to look into Freud’s work with as much detail as I did. I want my assistant to work for the Foundation, not only finding flaws in everything and everyone around.And why I prefer a woman over a man for this position? Very simple too: Because women are way more intuitive than men. And since my job is to try to help people fall in Love with the Planet, the more PREPARED (Hence I required a degree) Female energy I can be surrounded with, the better. The world is too analytical as it is, we need more poetry and feminine energy around.
Maybe the world does need more poetry and feminine energy around. What Serio definitely needs around is someone to stop him from hoarding exotic animals and putting people in frightening situations under the auspices of awareness-raising.
When he’s not hosting reality TV stars and offering his friends up as sacrificial lambs, Serio continues to add to his cat collection: his three most recent babies are named Pixar, Macintosh and Apple. I asked Black Jaguar-White Tiger™ for documentation of where they got their cats, as well as an update on the promised “Stage 3” expansion, but did not receive an answer. While emailing with its CFO, Paul Checas, he said my questions had been forwarded to Serio but “as you may probably know we don’t like to indulge bullies so basically that is why we have not dignified with a response to the haters”.
Illustration by Jim Cooke