Tiger King is a seven-part Netflix docuseries on the community of big cat owners operating in the United States with a particular focus on the story of Oklahoma zoo owner and internet personality Joe Exotic. A colourful personality, Joe engages in a crazy feud with wildlife conservationist Carole Baskin, which leads to his downfall.
Animal exploitation or conservation?
In episode one entitled ‘Not Your Average Joe,’ Tiger King presents its central character as an eccentric individual with a love for big cats and a deep-rooted desire to share that passion with others. A self-described “gay, gun-toting redneck with a mullet”, Joe Exotic is the owner of one of the country’s largest big cat parks. Animal conservationists take a dim view of his park. According to them, he exploits animals for financial gain. While he admits that he does make a tidy profit off of his park, Joe takes a different view on the matter. He points out that he’s more likely to secure donations for wildlife preservation if he pitches the cause to people while they’re cuddling one of his tiger cubs. There’s also the fact that Joe staffs his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park with workers in need of second chances. A lot of his employees are ex-cons, misfits and runaways with nowhere else to go. For them, running the park and showering the animals with love seems to be deeply fulfilling work.
The he said, she said drama
Joe’s chief adversary is Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. She takes pride in running a sanctuary, while trying to take down big cat parks, accusing Joe and his ilk of animal cruelty and breeding big cats for financial gain. There’s a lot of “he said, she said” and wild accusations are thrown back and forth. The ensuing events will have viewers of the series wondering if these crazy characters are actually real people. Carole condemns Joe for keeping his cats in cages, but is shown to be doing the very same thing at her sanctuary. While Joe is certainly an odd character, his employees seem grateful for the opportunity to work at his zoo and love the animals. Could the park really be responsible for the sort of exploitation and cruelty that Carole claims? It’s riveting to watch their feud grow in intensity as it plays out in prerecorded security footage from Joe’s park, footage shot for a reality show on Joe that was never aired and interviews with the filmmakers.
Reality that’s stranger than fiction
The series presents us with real people so outlandish that they put characters most writers could come up with to shame. There’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and the organisation he runs, The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), complete with scantily-clad female animal handlers. Doc views himself as a sort of cult leader. Mario Tabraue, a former drug cartel boss, who after serving his time in prison for murder, has entered the big cat trade, and Jeff Lowe, a businessman from Las Vegas, who has a penchant for smuggling cubs into hotel rooms on the Vegas strip to help him get girls into bed with him and his wife. When these people come together, we get a true story that’s stranger than fiction.
A great character study
Aside from the general craziness of the events depicted in the docuseries, Tiger King is a compelling character study of a person who becomes so thirsty for power and driven by his hatred of a rival that he loses everything he holds dear, even himself. When Joe opened the park, his defining motivation was his love for animals, but over the course of the series, we witness that love slowly decay as he becomes consumed with his hatred for Carole, his desire to get back at the people who wronged him and his greed. The cats become little more than a vehicle for profit to him.
One part tale of revenge and tragedy, one part story of animal conservation, this docuseries is a wild ride filled with twists and turns that will leave viewers gawking at the outlandish characters and the absurd events that unfold.
Directors: Rebecca Chaiklin, Eric Goode
Cast: Carole Baskin, Joe Exotic, Bhagavan Antle
Seasons: 1 (2020)
Streaming on: Netflix