I’m sure that by now everyone has heard of Netflix’s newest true crime documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The show and its two main focuses—Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin—have both been the subject of many memes and wide discussion across the internet. But what is Tiger King? Well, the eight-part series was released on Netflix on the 20th of March, with a follow up, reunion-esque episode hosted by Joel McHale (why? I’m also still wondering) on April 12th. The series follows the events leading up to Joe Exotic’s incarceration and conviction for seventeen acts of animal abuse, and two acts of murder for hire. Yup, murder for hire.
Who is Joe Exotic?
The main focus of the documentary is the self-titled Tiger King—Joe Exotic (real name: Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage né Schreibvogel). Originally from Kansas, Exotic started the G.W. Zoo, a private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma in 1999. Throughout the show, Exotic is portrayed as quite charismatic, very un-hinged, somewhat manipulative and all-together stranger than fiction.
Who is Carole Baskin?
Exotic’s number one ‘enemy’, Baskin runs a non-profit animal rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. Baskin, originally from Texas, began the sanctuary in 1992 with second husband Don Lewis, and has targeted many private zoo owners across America for animal abuse and exploitation. The disappearance of Don Lewis, and the theory that Baskin killed him, was also zeroed in on in the documentary. This popular theory is supposedly the reason that she has been the target of continuous harassment by Exotic and other exotic animal traders in the documentary. It has nothing to do with the fact that they hate her for trying to shut them down and end ownership of exotic animals in the US. Nothing at all.
Throughout the documentary, there is actually very little to do with the animals themselves. Most of the focus is on Exotic and Baskin, along with an ensemble of other odd characters, the strangest of which is Doc Antle, another private zoo owner who also seems to run a bizarre and coercive looking sex cult through his zoo. A few statistics are thrown around, such as the fact that 5000 tigers are kept in captivity in the USA alone—when there are only 3890 left in the wild. Or the fact that Exotic at one point had 174 tigers himself.
The show also somewhat highlights how exploitative cub petting is. The tiger cubs are only viable to be petted up until they turn 12 weeks old, at which point they become too dangerous to be petted. In order to keep up with demand, the cubs are taken from their mothers at birth so that the mother is able to breed again sooner. However, I’m not sure that the show does an adequate job of actually portraying how traumatic being kept and bred in captivity can be for animals, especially when kept in sub-optimal conditions like the ones at G.W. Zoo. On the other hand, Tiger King is more about the Tiger King himself, rather than the animals. One could argue this highlights the whole issue with these sorts of zoos – they simply aren’t about the animals. I would argue that the documentary is pretty sensationalised itself, much like the zoos it covers.
My criticism of the series would be that, no matter how entertaining it is, I found it to be bizarrely biased against Baskin—a woman who cares the most about animal welfare and who no longer breeds big cats. She is arguably the only person in this documentary who should be allowed to care for these animals, even if she come across as very strange or slightly unhinged. The documentary omits many of the positive aspects of Baskin—such as how she doesn’t allow visitors, volunteers or the staff to actually touch the tigers. The only tigers they keep have been taken from their owners lawfully, or given up by the owners who face heavy fines from exploiting a tiger after giving up their own.
And I don’t think Baskin killed Lewis—my theory is that something happened to him in Costa Rica. My theory is supported by the fact that there is little to no solid evidence implicating Baskin in anyway, despite what the show says. I also don’t believe Exotic would have actually planned to murder her—he seemed to be taking a joke way too far. On the other hand, seeing how biased the series was against Baskin, it makes me wonder just how biased it was in Exotic’s favour.
Ultimately, I would recommend that people watch Tiger King. It’s well-paced, with the excitement and intrigue never dropping. There is never a dull moment in the show and the production never let it linger on any one aspect too long. Despite how entertaining it was, I also found it to be very sad. Every person featured seems to come from some sort of highly dysfunctional background and doesn’t appear to be happy. On top of this, the documentary really highlighted just how neglected most of the animals were, and that no one really seemed to care at all about them. In fact, I would say there were only two people who genuinely cared – Carole Baskin, and G.W. Zoo zookeeper Eric Cowie.
While researching for this article I came across two articles by National Geographic that provide more information that you should definitely read if you want to learn more about tigers in America or the context of the show.