A Quick-Start Guide: How Do I Know If Tiger King Is For Me?
By Steve EricksonMarch 31, 2020
Is Tiger King for me?
I’m glad you asked! Watching Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a decision everyone must make for him/herself. There is no hard scientific data to determine when you’re ready to let Tiger King happen to you, so that’s why I put this quick-start guide together. My hope is that this guide will help you be better informed before you dedicate yourself to over 5 frenzied, tiger-fueled hours of sitting on your couch. These FAQs should help you get up to speed to decide if TK is right for you.
**Note: I will touch on several key points from the series. It feels wrong to say there are “spoilers” ahead because this show isn’t fiction nor is it purely spectacle. It’s easy to forget but important to remember, this is a true-crime documentary featuring real people. Granted, the subjects know they are being filmed and one could argue that there’s an inherent performance that comes with that knowledge. Still, I think it’s important to keep in mind as you read/watch. While there is plenty to poke fun at (you’ll see below), the series deals with many other grave issues such as the mistreatment of animals, animal attacks on humans, and even accidental deaths, which continue to have serious real-world repercussions. With that, let’s get into it.
What is Tiger King?
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is a Netflix limited series documentary about the owners of exotic animals (primarily big cats), the private zoo operations they run, and their swollen egos. The through-line of the documentary involves the ongoing feud between Joe Exotic, former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, and Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who operates Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary primarily housing big cats. The situation escalates over time, beginning with the two taking potshots at one another in homemade Internet videos and reaching a boiling point when Joe is accused of hiring a hit-man to kill Carole outside her animal sanctuary.
Why is everyone watching Tiger King right now?
Think of the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction” and you’ll understand exactly why this show has been trending as the #1 Netflix show in the U.S. for several days (also Coronavius-related quarantining doesn’t hurt ratings). Besides having some of the most outlandish and eccentric real-life characters, Tiger King deals with the subject matter that reminds us why true-crime as a genre will always be intriguing, plus a whole lot more; from Internet death threats, gay polygamous marriage, suspected arson, and possibly the single greatest display of leopard print clothing in a series (a metric shit-ton to be exact). Once you start, it’s nearly impossible to look away.
Are the characters as eccentric as the Internet is saying?
YES! At least the documentary directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin certainly appear to have captured all of their eccentricities. There’s a good reason memes about this show have been sprouting up all over. I am going to reserve further judgment and simply list the major players from the documentary here:
Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka Joseph Schreibvogel, aka Joe Exotic, aka The Tiger King
Joe is the former owner of The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (or the G.W. Zoo) in Oklahoma. Self-described as “the gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet,” Joe is an astounding showman, performing with exotic animals and big cats at the zoo, and an Internet sensation in his own right. His YouTube channel, JoeExoticTV has 128K subscribers (some of whom surely found the channel after the Netflix doc aired). It’s not even a question that Joe is a go-getter and the king of self-promotion (besides Tiger King): in his time at the G.W. Zoo, Joe separately ran for the office of governor of Oklahoma and for president of the United States.
Whether he truly believed in his power to enact change or if his bids were merely publicity stunts for the zoo remains unknown, but Joe’s ego soars in this series, and to his credit, he and his production team have an amazing knack for creating consumable content. Just take a look at this promotional trailer for the zoo, which belabors the point of Joe’s title, The Tiger King:
A long-time feud with Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who runs Big Cat Rescue, eventually boiled over with Joe’s arrest and conviction in a murder-for-hire plot, for which he remains imprisoned now.
Carole Baskin has had the spotlight on her on and off for over twenty years now, and it’s not just because of her always-in-style flower crown. Besides running Big Cat Rescue, the non-profit animal sanctuary near Tampa, Fl, Carole came into the public eye in 1997 when her millionaire husband Don Lewis disappeared under unclear circumstances. The majority of Don’s estate went into Carole’s hand five years later when he was legally declared dead. Joe and other entrepreneurs who make their money from private zoos and the breeding/selling of exotic animals believe that Carole was directly behind her husband’s disappearance, and a popular, if not totally unreasonable theory, is that Carole fed her husband to the tigers in her sanctuary. She also takes to the Internet to interact with her own massive following of cat lovers.
Bhagavan Antle, aka Doc Antle
He rides elephants, he surrounds himself with gorgeous women, he has a ponytail, a soul patch, and a John Hammond-esque hat. He is Bhagavan Antle, the founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species or T.I.G.E.R.S. (sigh) in Myrtle Beach, SC.
You might be wondering where the term “Bhagavan” comes from. Doc vies with Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin for world’s largest ego. The name Bhaghavan is a Hindu epithet meaning “blessed,” and it’s typically reserved for deities or gurus. Falling in line with our other lead characters, Doc’s title is 100% self-appointed and used by his staff, a coterie of women he personally selects to work for insultingly low wages. If you recall the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country that briefly caused a media storm in 2018, Doc will immediately put you in mind of Rajneesh or Osho, the religious (cult) leader of the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon in the early 1980s. Episode 2 of Tiger King, “Cult of Personality” puts Doc under a microscope and includes an interview with a former “employee” from his Myrtle Beach Safari.
The angel (of death) investor. Jeff is a big cat owner and businessman who steps in as Joe Exotic’s business partner when Joe hits dire straits. A lawsuit with Carole Baskin nearly sees Joe lose the G.W. Zoo. But good-guy Jeff intercedes, saving the zoo temporarily, and then quickly wrests control from Joe and of course serves his own interests. The deal he strikes with Joe grants him permission to store his personal arsenal of cats at the G.W. Zoo. We learn that Jeff first got interested in big cats because his grandfather ran the Robbin’s Brothers Circus, but these days Jeff and his wife are more interested in sneaking tiger cubs into Vegas hotel suites via suitcases. There Jeff uses the cubs as adorable props to solicit young women into swinging with him and his wife. Jeff also rocks a mean bandana and a pair of ripped blue jeans like he’s Billy Ray Cyrus.
John Finlay and Travis Maldonado
Joe Exotic’s husbands act as foils to one another in some ways. John Finlay is Joe’s first husband, a gruff tattooed outdoorsman who likes firing guns and participating in Joe’s explosive hobbies. Travis Maldonado is a handsome Californian boy who enters the story as a worker at the G.W. Zoo as a 19-year-old and quickly joins Joe and John’s romance. John’s and Travis’s narratives shed a lot of light on Joe as a person, and they provide several of the most heart-breaking and shocking moments of the documentary.
The G.W. Employees
The workers at the G.W. often are the only people in the episodes who display any level of affection or care for the animals held in captivity. With their typically understandable points of view and logical reasoning, they quietly keep the series from descending into bat-shit madness (they try to at least).
Will I get anything out of Tiger King?
At the very least a few laughs, mostly derived from Joe Exotic’s irreverent sense of humor and killer sense of fashion. Hopefully (and more importantly) you’ll get a new perspective about the current laws regarding private ownership of big cats in the U.S. It’s an ethical debate which has never really faded, and now it may be resurging with renewed energy: should private citizens be allowed to own, breed, sell, trade exotic animals, especially big cats?
To some, it can seem like an unnecessary area to legislate, given all of the other problems facing the country at the moment, such as gun control or the opioid epidemic, but in many ways, the issue is semi-related to the heated debate over the Second Amendment. Similar to how the wildly unregulated ownership of firearms has enabled mass shootings in recent years, private cat ownership has had horrific impacts in the past—in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011 the owner of a private exotic animal reserve released dozens of tigers and lions from their cages before killing himself. Police were forced to dispatch and hunt the animals, some of which were endangered species, before they could wreak havoc on the community.
Interestingly, since being convicted, Joe Exotic has made it his mission to push for a law to limit the ownership of exotic animals. Perhaps his sudden change of heart is the result of a newfound empathy for animals in captivity as he himself adjusts to his own little prison cell? Or maybe he has a vendetta against those who stood idly by as he went down in flames continue to this day to profit from exotic animal breeding/selling who. Hard to say.
Is Tiger King worth the watch?
I say yes. It’s probably not for everyone, but if nothing else, you’ll be able to join the conversation with your co-workers during your virtual hangouts, and you can even add to the enormous stockpile of memes that’s been generated: