Hey there all you cool cats and kittens. Buckle up, because Netflix’s documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is one hell of a ride.
If someone told me at the beginning of the year that I would spend April in isolation obsessed with a show about a polyamorous, gay, mullet-sporting, redneck zoo owner and his archnemesis Carole, they would have had to drag me into 2020 kicking and screaming. But now that we are here, Tiger King and its accompanying country music, memes, and social fixation are the therapy we all needed right now.
When I began watching this show, tigers were my favorite animal. By the end, human beings had become my least favorite. If you think this show is about tigers, think again. Tiger King follows the story of Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, who owns over 200 big cats in his private zoo in “bumfuck Oklahoma,” also known as the town of Wynnewood. The show also features private American zookeepers Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, and Mahamayavi Baghlavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of the Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
While the series begins with an introduction to the unique lifestyles of America’s private zoo owners, the plot quickly escalates into a vicious rivalry between Joe and his flower-crown-wearing nemesis Carole Baskin. If you care about your liver at all, do not play a drinking game with this show and the name “Carole Baskin.” You will not make it out of the first episode alive. Carole Baskin is an adult woman who is still a horse girl, but for cats. Although passionate about cats all her life, she inherited the Big Cat Rescue from her ex-husband millionaire Don Lewis, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1997 and has never been found.
Carole Baskin attracts the ire of other zookeepers like Exotic and Doc Antle by condemning them for cub breeding, animal abuse, and usurping cat’s wellbeing for their financial gain. She organizes campaigns of animal rights supporters to hinder Exotic and Antle’s businesses. Ever since, Carole and Joe have been embroiled in an unimaginably dramatic feud, culminating in Exotic’s payment to a hitman to kill her.
While acting like a savior of big cats, she is not really much better than the zoo owners she attempts to destroy. Her late husband began the rescue by breeding cubs. She makes a profit through customers who pay to see big and endangered cats. In revenge for Baskin’s attempts to shut down his zoo, Exotic pours an enormous amount of energy into his own TV show to prove that Baskin murdered her late millionaire husband Don Lewis.
According to Lewis’ family and rumors from the local community, Baskin killed her husband and either fed him to the tigers or abandoned his body in the sewer system below Big Cat Rescue. Unfortunately, guilty or innocent, everything about Carole’s character suggests she would be highly capable of committing such an act. From her tiger print outfits to her knowledge that sardine oil is the key ingredient for enticing a tiger to attack a human, Carole does not come across as the most stable of figures.
Joe Exotic might be concerningly handy with recreational grenades and Carole may have a suspicious past, but the person who disgusts me most in Tiger King is Baghlavan “Doc” Antle. Antle’s tiger business is less of a zoo, and more of a cult with a harem of female employees whom he sexually usurps. Dressing his staff in cat print lingerie and giving them “exotic” Asian names, Doc Antle’s character is not charmingly unique like Joe, but genuinely creepy.
While Tiger King’s wildness is sure to give you some laughs and raise your eyebrows, the documentary glosses over some major issues. The show mentions animal abuse, but each character seems to care more about the protection of their lifestyle than the wellbeing of their animals. Accusations of animal cruelty and early euthanasia take a backseat to personal rivalries and scandals.
The storyline also minimizes the zookeeper’s mistreatment of their employees and predatory behavior. When one of Joe Exotic’s employee’s arms is ripped off by a tiger, the immediate concern is the financial stability of the park. No questions are raised about the zoo practices that led to a debilitating injury, which is waved away as unimportant by both Joe and the employee. In his personal life, Joe pursues straight men over twenty years his junior. He keeps his husbands loyal to him by feeding their addictions to meth.
The climax of Tiger King’s dark side comes when one of Joe Exotic’s husbands, Travis Maldonado, commits suicide in front of Joe’s campaign manager. While footage from security cameras do not show the actual moment of death, you see the panicked and disturbed reaction of the campaign manager watching someone die right before his eyes. The documentary focuses less on the concerning circumstances of Maldonado’s suicide, and more on Joe’s reaction, musical performance at the funeral of his late husband, and new marriage just months later.
Tiger King’s ability to distract viewers from major moral issues lies in its splendid shock factor. Joe Exotic is a born entertainer, and the video footage of him blowing up Carole Baskin dummies, protesting outside Big Cat Rescue in a bloody rabbit costume, and passing out Joe Exotic condoms to potential voters in his campaign for Oklahoma governor results in a documentary where nothing is really surprising. Employees pour gasoline while smoking lit cigarettes, Exotic feeds his tigers and employees with expired Walmart meat, and his music video featuring a Carole Baskin lookalike is truly impressive. In the final episode of the series, Alan Glover, the man Exotic hired to kill Baskin, is interviewed while sitting in his bathtub, and it is the most normal thing to happen in the alternate universe of Tiger King. The comical and ridiculous tone of the series makes viewers want to laugh in astonishment rather than contemplate topics of abuse, addiction, and mental illness.
Not only does the documentary gloss over serious topics, but the series poses true statements in a format that clearly influences viewers’ opinions. By the end of the documentary, it is easy to believe that Carole actually killed her husband despite no proof and Joe is just a loveable rascal set up by criminals around him. It is only after a few days of reflection that you remember, while fascinatingly eccentric, Exotic is guilty of animal abuse and a potential murder attempt.
While the documentary choices of Tiger King are morally questionable, this show truly is fascinating. It may be a train wreck that displays the worst of America, but it is impressively difficult to take your eyes off. Perhaps during a time of widespread anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tiger King was exactly what we needed.