Just when you think you know everything about the world, something like this comes along, and you realize that you don’t. Tiger King, the new true-crime documentary from Netflix is about zoos. Now, if you live anywhere in the world, other than the great United States of America, you associate zoos with government-regulated parks where people can roam, relax and see wild animals in cages. They might also partake in the conservation efforts of exotic species, depending on how much your government cares about putting that on its resume.
But when it comes to the United States? They really take that “Wild West” tag seriously, don’t they?
Succumbing to peer pressure, I gave Tiger King a watch. Two episodes in, I thought I’d better go back. So much ground was being covered that I felt I couldn’t justify just hacking out a five hundred word piece on this seven-part miniseries. I felt like I had to write what I thought about each episode.
So that’s what I did.
Tiger King Episode 1 – Not Your Average Joe
Official Netflix Synopsis – Meet Joe Exotic, the gun-toting operator of an Oklahoma big cat park. He’s been accused of hiring someone to murder his chief rival, Carole Baskin.
I blame myself for being surprised that in America (and this show nails, what I believe, the “freedom” part of what the USA is all about) private individuals can own and operate zoos with lax and almost no oversight. And they make it look so easy. For people who are bored with their day jobs and are looking for a change of scenery, this is inspiring. But not for me. Even if I were energized enough to make this move, my main concern wouldn’t be land and other overhead costs, but the bureaucracy that comes ingrained in government. That Sivaji The Boss sequence where Rajnikanth’s character tries to build his medical college the right way makes me never want to deal with government officers.
And I’m not even sure private citizens are allowed to own a zoo here.
Watching Joe and Doc Antle run their own little kingdom unlocks something in you. You’re living your fantasies through them. You think of the possibilities. You think you’re doing these animals a favor by providing them with a safe sanctuary. You giddy at the thought of marketing your business however you want – with internet shows, social media posts, allowing the public to pet the cubs, merchandising and what not.
It’s a slippery slope. And it’s a rabbit hole you do not want to enter.
The more I learned about this world, the more I got influenced to do the same and the more I hated myself for thinking about doing this. One daydreams. What if I could sing songs and make music videos like Joe does? What exactly is stopping me? Evey thing I need to learn is on the internet. Average Joes like you and me rarely do anything substantial in life. But this episode, aptly titled “Not Your Average Joe“, makes you day-dream and then sickens you to your core.
I can handle the debate of whether or not private, for-profiteering individuals should be allowed to own exotic animals. I might even be wide-eyed and fascinated and want to work for someone who does. But Tiger King balances out the dream with the ugly reality. The harmful effects of this business are in plain view. The snow leopard caged in the back of that van is in no way acclimated to the Florida climate. Greater Wynne-wood Exotic Animal Park visitors who partook in cub-petting repulse me. I get that they are just everyday people who are too foolish and selfish to look beyond their own needs and wants, but really?
What really sets me off is the flash photography. Ages ago, I visited a Cat Cafe in Versova, Mumbai. The establishment had some guidelines for its furless visitors, mainly – sanitize your hands and absolutely NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. At the time I considered those to be logical rules which were in the best interests of the feline creatures that dwell there. But I’m not sure I can visit them again. Their guidelines are not a problem, but one can never really trust humans not to break them.
Apart from Joe Exotic and Doc Antle, the episode introduces Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue as, I predict, the antagonist to Joe’s protagonist. While Joe comes of as an unsophisticated flamboyant dimwit, Carole and Doc display signs of competence, ruthlessness and exploitation. The episode highlights the viewpoints of both Joe and Doc Antle, who believe their business isn’t exploitative vs Carole who believes it is. As a viewer, you realize all three are hypocrites on some level. Joe believes in his cause unquestioningly. Doc Antle believes its good money. Carole opposes them and is depicted as an elitist – a trust-fund zookeeper, if you will, who has the power to influence millions with her marketing skills and her actual millions.
If we’re taking this as a game, I can’t wait to see who comes out on top.
Poor cats though.
Tiger King Episode 2 – Cult of Personality
Official Netflix Synopsis – Subjected to long hours, little (or no) pay and the whims of eccentric bosses: are big cat park employees just cogs in a web of personality cults?
Things start to get interesting as this episode deep-dives into the lives of the workers (in some cases, volunteer slaves) who work at these privately owned zoos/big cat sanctuaries.
Tim Stark, a big cat breeder and owner of Wildlife in Need is introduced and I’m not sure what exactly his role is here, except to provide context.
I’ll ignore him for now. He seems too vanilla in this world.
In a normal world, you would expect a business owner to be more concerned about the safety of his/her employee who has just suffered a terrible accident during work hours than the financial fallout from the bad publicity.
Oh, who I am kidding? I saw that “I will never financially recover from this” line coming a mile away.
Joe Exotic, the most successful redneck from South USA, seems to have a very rag-tag group of dedicated employees. In a way, I almost relate to Saff Saffery, the employee who got his arm torn off by feeding the tiger. You’re surprised and in a way, admire his lack of outrage over the incident. But is this just a case of a dedicated employee or does it explain why this episode is named the way it is?
What makes multiple, can-think-for-themselves individuals work for pennies and not demand better work conditions or job perks?
In Joe’s case, we get answers by peeking into his flamboyant lifestyle and his unofficial marriage with Travis Maldonado and John Finlay. The episode shatters many illusions one may have when you think of Southern United States that abhor homosexuality and embrace evangelicalism.
You learn something new about the world everyday. And you can’t stop watching.
The lives of the employees under all three zoo owners are exploitative on some level or another. While Joe’s employees come from questionable, criminal backgrounds who will find work where they get it, Doc Antle’s situation is nothing short of “Wild Wild Country“. While listening to Barbara Fisher’s experiences of working under (unintended pun) Doc Antle , a part of you gets an uneasy feeling, while the other reprehensible part (voiced audibly by Tim Stark) wonders how he did it. Is money really all that you need? Does wielding power over your fellow man always come with the need to take it too far? Doc, who you had earlier admired for being the smarter version of Joe, creeps into your “Stay-away-from-these-creeps” list.
Your desire to own and operate a business like that either just evaporates or strengthens, depending on who you are as a person.
Surprisingly, the makers of the Tiger King documentary, introduce someone who doesn’t have employees on welfare. A person who loves big cats because they are big cats. Compared multiple times to Tony Montana, Mario Tabraue comes off as the unlikely voice of reason in this show about zookeepers who debate whether people should be able to profit off of the sharp-teethed felines or not. Armed with a chequered past, Mario Tabruae’s philosophy is simple – own cats but take idiot-proof measures for their protection as well as the safety of the idiots. You tend to agree with him, but realize he’s just another shady player in this world which is full of questionable characters. But as far as competing for sanity goes, this convicted drug kingpin comes out miles ahead with fuel to spare.
In an ideal world, these cats wouldn’t even be in this predicament. They would be in national parks or designated wildlife sanctuaries protected by laws and regulations. Sadly, the person who is pursuing that agenda, Carole Baskin, does not come out looking good.
It might be the show not doing her any semblance of justice, but the mindset of her workers, or “volunteers” doesn’t win her any points. It is one thing to turn to a job you don’t want out of desperation, but did someone change the definition of volunteering from “working for an organization without being paid” into something else? It’s unfathomable to me that so many people took and still take pride into leveling up into different colored T-shirts. It doesn’t matter what good you think you’re doing in this world, it’s not karate.
Joe and Carole’s rivalry comes down to driving the other out of business. Things get ugly and the cats suffer. You’re disgusted by both so you don’t take sides. Tiger King, which is primarily Joe’s story, takes no qualms about making you hate everyone involved. Joe might be a entertaining simpleton but he fantasizes dropping grenades from helicopters on the other team’s turf.
Self-proclaimed lover of big cats, you say?
Just when you’re harboring feels of ill towards one side, out comes a bombshell about the other.
Tiger King Episode 3 – The Secret
Official Netflix Synopsis – An incident in Carole’s past casts her in a suspicious light, and while she maintains her innocence, Joe is all too happy to point the finger at her.
Do you believe Carole Baskin killed her husband Don Lewis?
I don’t. Not to a certainty.
While investigative reporting might not be one of Tiger King’s stronger suites, this slightly-derailed episode delves satisfactorily into Carole Baskin’s ex-husband Don Lewis’s life. Their relationship and marriage is anything but straight out of a good Southern Christian courtship. One may see it as a badly plotted, down-on-her-luck girl’s infiltration into a rich sugar-daddy’s business, but sometimes you forget you’re watching real life events detailed by actual people. It’s not an unbelievable tale of whodunit because it actually happened. A man disappeared, possibly killed.
Tiger King, who has been intent up to this point to paint Carole Baskin as this resourceful, malevolent zookeeper, continues tradition by examining the conspiracy theory that she fed her husband to the tigers.
All the possible scenarios are consider. All avenues are explored. None of them stick.
This episode of this true crime documentary borderlines on satire with the welcome inclusion of the Hello Kitty Kitty song – a video made by the outrageous Joe Exotic intent on vilifying Carole till kingdom come. Pettiness knows no bounds, no restraints in this world.
And so, we keep watching.
Tiger King Episode 4 – Playing with Fire
Official Netflix Synopsis – Joe ramps up his efforts to become an internet and TV star, but a mysterious fire and lawsuit threaten his plans — until an angel investor appears.
Things start getting interesting.
Who am I kidding? They already were. They start getting interesting-er.
This was the first episode, which I felt, sticks to its story-line and theme. The David vs Goliath parallels are there, along with one of the all-time greatest cons an opportunist can implement on the vulnerable and the desperate.
As the rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin turns ugly, you can’t help but compare this story with a parallel-universe’s version of a badly written Erin Brokovich. In this case, it’s an honest, salt-of-the-earth but vindictive small guy going against the evil conglomerate, that for appearance’s sake, isn’t all-out evil.
You have Carole, on one hand, intent on bankrupting Joe Exotic’s animal park and Joe, on the other, way in over his head antagonizing her just because he can. There has never been a more blatant example of power corrupting the mortal man. If the viewpoints presented in this documentary are to be believed, it is easier to swallow that Joe burned down his own cabin than Carole murdering her husband.
I was looking forward to this episode because Search Engine Land’s article highlighted the involvement of SEO, but they don’t really get into detail. The tactics used by Joe are ingenious and it was a logical move, but it is very black-hat and illegal.
Do you still have those dreams of owning a big cat sanctuary? If you ask me, who needs all that headache.
Tiger King Episode 5 – Make America Exotic Again
Official Netflix Synopsis – As Joe dives into politics, he deals with turmoil and tragedy in his personal life. Meanwhile, the dynamics at the park change with the new owners.
This documentary has reached that point where you feel bad for spectating the train wreck. The fact that we’re watching a man’s actual, personal life fall apart in Ultra HD and on an HDR-compatible screen – it is unbelievable.
Tiger King blurs the line between a bad, but unfortunately factual reality show and a documentary as we are shown Joe’s struggle with drugs and the loss of losing a loved one. Eerie parallels draw between Joe Exotic’s and Steven Avery’s life, the latter who is the subject of another Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer“. Tiger King and Making A Murderer, both are based on rural, South USA subjects but what surprises me is the amount of access they provide the documentary makers into their lives. And for what? I reckon I’ll spend days googling what I can about Joe Exotic, find out why he agreed to this and let Netflix distribute it world-wide for our viewing pleasure.
I don’t think the answer would surprise me. Or anyone.
Make America Exotic Again, once again, provides a peek into the American culture of freedom, and not much else. Joe Exotic running for POTUS and then Governor could be the plot of a South Park episode in the early 2010s. But now? We’re living the satire.
Honestly, the smartest thing Joe’s done on this show is distribute those condoms with his face on the packaging.
I hope those worked.
Tiger King Episode 6 – The Noble Thing to Do
Official Netflix Synopsis – James Garretson makes a shocking claim about Joe, leading to FBI involvement. Desperation sets in for Joe, who thinks Jeff and James have set him up.
Finally, we see Joe do the dumbest thing a person can possibly do. As the mini-series nears its conclusion, we finally get to see why Joe’s sitting in an Oklahoma County Jail.
I’m underwhelmed at the lack of sophistication. But not surprised.
Maybe I’m too attuned to all the ridiculousness that this new world has introduced me to, but this episode takes a back seat on the craziness scale. The plot to murder Carole Baskin is perhaps one of the most harebrained schemes I’ve ever seen – true story or not. If it were a movie, I would award it zero stars.
I can’t say that I’m surprised Joe was picked up and charged. Someone who has been repeatedly documented acting on emotion and impulse was never going to get away with a hit. At the same time, you can’t help but feel a tiny bit sad and slightly convinced that he was framed.
Sympathizing with Joe Exotic, however, is not something you should do lightly, considering every thing we know about the man. He might not be infamous on the level of Charles Manson, but popular culture, memes and the current pandemic might just put him there.
Tiger King Episode 7 – Dethroned
Official Netflix Synopsis – Joe faces the music in the courtroom but insists the story is far from over. Jeff’s business prospects crumble. Former G.W. Zoo workers try to move on.
It doesn’t really hit you until the last episode how obvious and cliched the downfall of kings and tyrants is. While this series follows the same vein as “Making a Murderer“, you don’t find yourself aligning yourself with Joe, no matter how much you sympathize with him.
So what’s the differentiating factor? Money? Joe Exotic was a millionaire compared to Steven Avery’s roadside junkyard businessman. Or is it the fact that Steven is not as reprehensible a character as Joe is? In fact, all the players in Tiger King who are in positions of power come off as repulsive. Doc, Jeff, Carol, her current husband – you wish you had never heard of them.
Tiger King comes off as a docu-drama where the documentary makers exploited the subjects for monetary gain while the subjects themselves exploit big cats. But there’s a difference – Joe and the others got to decide for themselves. They agreed to it. The cats didn’t.
It is uncomfortable taking sides in this story where there are no right players. You once again, wish you hadn’t seen it through. But you did, and now you’re just as petty as Joe, who you can’t help but laud – playing crusader and intent on taking down everyone who was with him or against him.
Maybe this will actually help focus on getting the cats what they need? Who knows. The current COVID-19 pandemic is certainly doing its part, letting big cats of South Africa be free.
Tiger King introduces the word into this previously unknown-to-many world of private exotic animal owners of America. It does so with crass, humor and some nifty editing. While the main characters are iconic and moronic, we must not take away focus from the big cats – the real kings of the wild. Maybe once the pandemic dies down, we let them breathe for a change.