Trust Me: Tiger King Is Unlike Anything You've Ever Seen, and You'll Love It
This is the impossibly bizarre distraction we deserve.
In 1823, Lord Byron wrote that truth is stranger than fiction. In 2020, Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness proved the 19th century poet was onto something.
I mean, Tigers! Murder! Mayhem! Madness! Oh, and also cults, polygamy, amateur country music videos, bleach blonde mullets, expired Walmart meats, a presidential campaign, promotional condoms, arson, missing limbs, missing teeth, and missing persons. These are all the things I never knew I craved in a docuseries, until I was introduced to Joe Exotic (formerly Schreibvogel, currently Maldonado-Passage).
The saga begins with Joe and his big cat zoo in Oklahoma, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Unlike most zoos, G.W. provided an up-close look at its animals, allowing guests to pet and play with baby tigers. Joe and other members of the staff would routinely spend time within the animals’ enclosures, playing and roughhousing with full-grown lions and tigers. Joe would also appear in his own “I-made-this-in-third-period-at-the-computer-lab” style country music videos with the animals — “I Saw a Tiger” is a classic.
I could probably watch an entire docuseries focused solely on a gun-toting mulleted gay polygamist “libertarian” zoo owner who records country music in his spare time, but this story is so much bigger than just Mr. Exotic.
As with every great tale, there’s a villain: Carole Baskin, the CEO and founder of Tampa, Fla. animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. Baskin dresses in head-to-toe animal print, addresses her social media devotees as “cool cats and kittens,” and also, according to some choice interview subjects, maybe killed her second husband (he went missing in 1997 and there are theories). She despises Joe Exotic and the way he runs his zoo, and is particularly incensed by G.W.’s breeding and selling of tiger cubs. Joe thinks Carole is a hypocrite, as she financially benefits from her own sanctuary, which in appearance and function is not unlike a typical zoo. Their virtual feud is ruthless, and soon reaches the point of depravity that it eclipses the very party both sides are trying to protect: The animals.
Though you may have inferred this through the basic plot overview, let me put it to you simply: This show is bats—t crazy. There are subplots galore, each more bizarre than the next, but the true intrigue of Tiger King is its cast of generally unlikable and self-serving characters. Aside from Carole and Joe there’s Bhagavan “Doc“ Antle (“Bhagavan” is described in the show as meaning both “friend of God” and “master of the universe”), the director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in Myrtle Beach. Like Joe, Doc Antle is also a polygamist, and while he’d disagree with the characterization, his safari operation is depicted as doubling as a small but mighty cult. We also have a power-hungry Mike Ehrmantraut lookalike, a chain-smoking documentarian, a retired drug lord, a Joe Exotic loyalist, a toothless pink camo-aficionado with a ”Privately Owned by Joe Exotic" crotch tattoo, and an ex-con who loves calling people “bitch.”
Tiger King is pure escapism — the perfect antidote for minds made weary with reports of a growing number of coronavirus cases and deaths as we stress-snack on the couch we haven’t left for three weeks.
I’m hardly the only person captivated by the Tiger King and his network of misfits — the series is currently the no. 1 most viewed program on Netflix. Along with the rest of the world, celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen, Zach Braff, and JoJo have joined the fandom.
Adding to the cultural moment, last fall it was announced that Kate McKinnon would star (as Carole) and executive produce a limited series based on season two of Wondery’s Joe Exotic podcast, which was released last August. There’s no word on when the project will air, but it goes without saying that it will be popular.
As with any form of entertainment based on real life events, there are angered parties involved. Baskin, for one, has slammed the series, claiming that Netflix presented the concept as an exposé about abuse in the animal world, but found the end result to be “as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers.”
PETA also shared some qualms with the series, noting that Tiger King fails to address how damaging it is to force wild animals, particularly cubs, to interact with the public (as they do at G.W.). “In nature, tiger cubs would stay by their protective and nurturing mothers for up to two years,” PETA writes in a blog post, “but tiger cubs used for photo ops are torn away from their mothers when they’re just hours, days, or weeks old. Cold and heat stress, malnutrition, exhaustion, and infectious diseases affect many of these likely terrified cubs, particularly the youngest ones, whose immune systems aren’t fully developed yet.”
Clearly, Tiger King is not without flaw. As a docuseries exposing the abuse of wild animals in captivity, it’s not entirely successful. But as a fully unhinged distraction from our current reality, Tiger King exceeds expectations.
To help put an end to the inhumane treatment of tigers in the U.S., encourage your local government officials to cosponsor the Big Cat Safety Act.