A Note From your Author: Hello! Sorry it’s been forever since I wrote anything. Between grad school and the ever present job hunt, I’ve been busy. I’ve tried a few times, but nothing ever stuck. Until. Well…this.
I have no idea how to begin writing this review. I’ll start by saying that I very rarely “binge” watch anything on Netflix. I like to savor most of the TV Shows I watch on the service. I’ll put on an episode of Chef’s Table while cooking or watch some old anime I’ve never seen for an hour before bed. There are, however exceptions to every rule. Bojack Horseman, for example. I binged through entire seasons of that show when they first debuted. Another example is the impeccable comedy, American Vandal, which I watched completely in one sitting, twice. Given those two prior properties, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that I watched all 5 plus hours of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness in one sitting. It’s the most surreal, and bizarre true crime series I’ve ever come across and I really want to talk about it.
Tiger King is a true crime drama created by Eric Goode set within the utterly mortifying and frequently humorous world of exotic animal exhibition. You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word conservation there, because frankly I refuse to acknowledge what these people are doing as conservation. These people aren’t conservationists, no matter how much they crow about how their animals help the cause of saving animals. Instead, this is the story of a vast, interconnected underworld of breeders, traffickers, and private zoos. At the center of this world and the main character of this story is a man named Joe Exotic.
Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was the owner of The Greater Wynnnewood Exotic Animal Park. The GW Zoo sells itself as being the largest private zoo in the country, but the zoo is of secondary importance to the man who runs it. Joe Exotic is a frankly unnerving man whose personality ranges from comical to paranoid all while coming across as weirdly charismatic. By the end of the story, he’ll be sentenced to 22 years in Federal Prison for gross violations of the Endangered Species Act and paying someone to commit murder. This is a man who staffed his zoo with vagrants that he paid in barely expired meat while inspiring a sort of odd affection in his workers. It’s hard to tell if the filmmakers admire or loathe Joe. The framing of the series is mercurial, at times portraying him as a bizarre avatar of kitschy weirdness and at others, presenting him as a highly skilled con artist or cult leader. The documentary’s shifting perspective makes you understand why these people would come under Joe’s sway. In particular, it does this by contrasting him with the rest of its core cast.
The entire first half of Tiger King is a character study, which is important. The viewer is going to need a lot of context to become immersed in this strange subculture. The second most important character is Joe Exotic’s arch-rival and the object of his scorn, Carole Baskin. Carole is the owner and operator of Big Cat Rescue, a much more legitimate and prestigious sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. At first glance, Carole is everything that Joe is not. She’s not without her own eccentricities but Carole is initially portrayed as an idealist. She’s essentially the world’s most dedicated and devout “cat lady.” She spends her time fighting against exotic animal breeding and trafficking while lobbying congress to get the country’s surprisingly lax laws changed. As the story progresses and more is revealed about Carole, she is painted in a different light. She’s a former big cat breeder herself, who once advocated breeding tigers, and other large cats as pets. Plus, there’s the bizarre disappearance of her previous husband, a Floridian multimillionaire who completely vanished in the late 90s. Many of Carole’s opponents in the big cat world, including most prominently Joe Exotic himself, believe with utter sincerity that Carole killed her former husband and fed him to her tigers. The feud between Baskin and Joe Exotic forms the backbone of the narrative, eventually culminating with Joe being arrested for hiring a man to kill Carole following her victory in a trademark infringement court battle between the two.
In the meantime, the documentary should be applauded for never losing its focus on the issue of exotic animals themselves. If the story of Joe Exotic’s fall from grace and eventual imprisonment are the plot of the drama, then the story involves asking why anyone would even operate a private animal collection of the scale of Exotic’s GW Zoo. In this regard, the series becomes a rumination on the idea of power. Many characters observe that there’s a certain sense of power that comes from working with these animals, the big cats in particular. It’s not surprising that many of Joe Exotic’s workers are drug addicts, recovering or otherwise. They often simply replace (or supplement) their chemical addiction with an addiction to the thrill of being around these dangerous animals. This is most horrifically embodied in the character of “Doc” Antle, a highly successful big cat exhibitor and breeder based out of Myrtle Beach. If Carole Baskin is the complete opposite of Joe Exotic, then Antle represents a perverse apotheosis of his practices and outlook. Exotic’s zoo and the world around him is portrayed as grimy and dirty. In contrast, Antle’s Myrtle Beach facility is clean and caters to a high caliber of patron. Doc Antle even has a history of providing animals to Hollywood productions like Ace Venture, and Mighty Joe Young. All of this belays the fact that Doc Antle is effectively a cult leader complete with practicing polygamy and seemingly brainwashing his female subordinates. While Joe is handled with a sort of quixotic curiosity, Antle is portrayed in the worst possible light.
Captivating is the best word I can use to describe Tiger King, both in terms of what it is and what it’s about. The filmmakers immerse you in this strange world, and the sublime pacing moves you through this hare-brained schemes and conspiracies that emerge from it. All the while, you might find yourself beginning to like some of these bizarre characters. Tiger King is like a 5 hour Ripley’s Believe it or Not exhibit, with a side order of murder-for-hire. But by the end of the series, a question has emerged: does our being captivated by these personalities distort our view of them? It’s not a spoiler to say that Joe Exotic is eventually convicted on several charges, including the aforementioned murder-for-hire. But he’s also the only person to take the fall for these crimes despite the fact that he was far from alone in organizing the criminal conspiracy. Now, don’t misunderstand, Joe is a weird dude who is and was dealing with some serious mental issues and hangups. He’s absolutely guilty of the crimes he was charged with. However, Joe Exotic is also by far the most outlandish personality in the drama, for so many reasons. He wear a bleached blonde mullet, he’s has weird tattoos, he’s flamboyantly gay, and he unabashedly speaks his mind, regardless of how wise that would be in any given situation. This all makes him a lightning rod for controversy and coverage but it distracts from the equally reprehensible characters in his wider circle. People like the aforementioned Doc Antle, or Jeff Lowe, an angel investor who saved Joe’s zoo while literally using tiger cubs to get himself laid in Vegas. By the end of the series, you feel sympathetic to Joe, if only because you share in the indignation he clearly feels about how the whole thing ended up.
However, if watching a surreal hybrid of Animal Planet reality show and true crime documentary isn’t enough for you, I feel like its important to highlight that Tiger King might be the best piece of conservation filmmaking since The Cove. Eric Goode, himself a prominent conservationist and the creator of The Turtle Conservancy, is fairly ingenious in his methods. Goode is essentially entirely hands off in his presentation. There’s no overarching narration, and Goode himself is very distance, often to the point of invisibility in the story he is telling. Instead, he just lets these people talk, and with every passing second they dig themselves into a deeper hole through arrogance and ego. For instance, many of the keepers talk about how essential the abhorrent practice of cub petting is to their businesses. People are willing to pay exorbitant amounts to play with and pet tiger cubs, but it’s only really possible to do so for the first four weeks of their lives. As such, breeders and zoo keepers have to constantly keep their female tigers pregnant so that they can consistently produce cubs to be fawned over by the paying public. What’s more, the question of what happens to the cubs when they grow out of this period is brought up, and the answers are deeply chilling. Goode doesn’t need to condemn the practice, the people who explain it unknowingly do so on their own to tremendous effect. It’s just one example of the filmmakers letting many of the personalities in this series implicate and damn themselves by their own hand and its extremely satisfying to watch play out.
Tiger King opens and ends with a startling statistic: there are more tigers in captivity in the US alone than there are in the wild. By focusing the narrative around one utterly bizarre and captivating individual, the filmmakers were able to construct a startling complete picture of this evil industry. Even Carole Baskin, the owner of the sanctuary in Tampa and the arguable hero of the story, isn’t overlooked or examined uncritically. By leaning into the absurdity of the narrative and highlighting the torrid details in the style of a reality show, Tiger King is far more effective than a more somber production. With any luck, this show will have the same impact as The Cove or Blackfish, and act as a rally cry for conservationists, lawmakers and anyone else who cares about endangered species to finally enact long needed changes. Sometimes, that can be the power of a well-told story, even a story about a strange man and his beloved zoo from Wynnewood, Oklahoma. The documentary even ends with footage of Joe Exotic from just after he’d opened up his zoo in the late 90’s. In an early interview, he explains his own devotion to conservation and the need to pass legislation outlawing the ownership and breeding of tigers and other big cats. It’s a sobering note to end on, a reminder that even the most devoted advocates can lose sight of the goal. When character matters more than cause, nobody wins.
Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem is available for streaming now on Netflix. Thanks for reading.