The 2020 true-crime documentary Tiger King on Netflix is the story of the interconnected world of big cat collectors in the USA, specifically zookeeper Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, and Carole Baskin, owner of Florida-based Big Cat Rescue. With its big cat attacks, cults, possible murder mystery, and some truly odd characters, it’s no surprise that the show went on to become a huge hit, nor that Tiger King is a viral sensation. But, should we be careful of what we take away from it?
[WARNING: Spoilers Ahead]
Hosted by Joel McHale, the show follows Joe Exotic, the “Tiger King” himself in the 2010s. Once a presidential candidate (yes really!), he has a zoo filled with exotic animals, a side career as a (questionable) country singer, and an archnemesis—Carole Baskin.
It starts with an interview with Joe Exotic in prison in 2019, where is he’s serving 22 years in jail for conspiring to murder eccentric animal rights activist Baskin (who might herself have murdered her husband). Throughout the rest of the seven episodes, the viewer goes on a wild ride to see how Joe ends up at this point.
We meet the “little cult” of drifters and big cat enthusiasts who once gathered around Joe at his zoo in Oklahoma, like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who allegedly runs a cult on his massive animal breeding ranch, Mario Tabraue, a former drug lord involved in animal trafficking, animal wrangler Saff Saffery, and a host of other characters from the exotic animal community in the American midwest.
What Makes Tiger King On Netflix So Popular?
Since its release on 20 March, the show has captured the pop-cultural imagination, with new viral memes and posts popping up every day. But, despite the diverse cast, there are no heroes in the Tiger King docu-series. And, in a sense, this seems to be the appeal. The absurdity of the show’s events tends towards extreme and ethically dubious content, dividing an incredulous audience who can’t help but talk about it.
On the surface, Tiger King is about a truly unique American subculture, about people who collect and breed big cats (as viewers are told early on, there are more privately owned tigers in the US than those in the wild).
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But when it comes to exotic animals, there is a lot that remains unsaid. Amidst all the cute cubs and playful tigers lies a darker truth. Cubs are routinely used for photo ops and petting (itself a deeply problematic practice for wild animals) and newborns are shown being dragged away from their mothers. Moreover, the fate of the cubs is never disclosed to viewers and sordid ends are hinted at.
Who’s The Real Villain?
The Tiger King docu-series is filled with such moments. But they are overshadowed by quirky details—from the neon sequined costumes of Joe Exotic and company to the way a former producer casually mentions how he lit himself on fire.
But if one looks beyond these meme-worthy bits, the story turns from that of a brash but essentially well-meaning eccentric into something more dangerous and cruel. One where the abuse of both animals and humans is rampant, rather than one about quirky big-cat fanatics.
There’s no better example of this than the central story of Joe’s feud with Carole Baskin. Like Joe the “Tiger King”, Carole “rescues” and keeps big cats and other wild animals in cages, charging visitors a fee to see them, but pays her support staff meagre wages, sometimes nothing at all. Unlike Joe, who openly breeds his cats for money, Carole’s operation serves as an animal sanctuary that tries to stop tiger breeding and petting by people like Exotic. Yet, she’s the one who’s painted as a villain both by Joe and the show itself, which places undue focus on the death of her husband instead of her work.
So What Did You NOT Know About Tiger King?
The show raises lots of big questions, like how do Joe and Doc Antle’s employees have such blind devotion to people who seem to be exploiting their work? Why are men like Joe (and his audience) so fascinated by big cats? And what is at stake in terms of animal rights? But, if you want answers to these questions, the show’s slightly aimless storytelling goes nowhere with them.
All of this is reminiscent of another hit, 2017’s The Greatest Showman, which has been criticised for whitewashing the life of P. T. Barnum and his perpetuation of human zoos. Similarly, Tiger King is distracted by its charm, presenting itself as a quirky romp through questionable and criminal practices.
It serves the purpose of a carnival sideshow, not unlike Joe Exotic’s park. You see the sign advertising the show and you stop, not necessarily because you want to, but just because it’s there. By releasing at such a crucial point in time, when so many people are being told to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tiger King on Netflix has managed to define a cultural moment. It’s just unfortunate that it’s one in which empathy is so crucial.