WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned Netflix binge? Considering most of us are confined to the walls of our homes and recognizing the significant impressions forming in our couch cushions, I would wager to say most of us were thankful to see a new documentary series come out. In the wake of widespread tragedy, a juicy true crime drama interspersed with wild animals is an excellent way to stay distracted. However, when I saw the memes inevitably popping up in my social media newsfeeds including pictures of a mullet-wearing, gun-toting, lip-syncing man with an eyebrow piercing, I had absolutely no idea what Tiger King was even about. I texted a friend of mine who shared the meme and asked what this infamous Tiger King even was; I was clueless.
She said, "Dude, I cannot even explain it. Just watch."
So I did.
And, like many others who have watched the series, I got sucked into the drama and conspiracies between the major players in the big cat business. Joe Exotic and his two husbands who turned out to be straight, Doc Antle with his undetermined number of lovers, and Carole Baskin who only had one husband at a time, but perhaps had something to do with the disappearance of the first one. The whole show is an insane account of the actions of crazy people with footage of tigers and other wild animals sprinkled into the mix.
And, also like many others who watched the series, I became mildly obsessed, so much so that I roped my mother into watching it so I could watch it a second time and have someone to talk to about it. I needed answers to my many questions, like why would Carole suggest that sardine oil may have been on Joe's shoes the day one of his cats dragged him around? Why would someone like Jeff Lowe even be interested in bailing out a "loser" like Joe Exotic? And why, why, why did Joe Exotic win 19% of the votes during his race to become governor of Oklahoma?
Most of all, though, I wondered how filmmaker Eric Goode could stomach shooting this documentary series. I wondered why producer Rick Kirkham stood idly by for years filming the antics going on at the GW Zoo, only to admit that animal cruelty took place in the bonus episode with Joel McHale. I wondered why - of all the predators in the cages - we were focused on the tigers instead of the humans.
On my second watch, my uneasiness with the big cat industry grew at an exponential rate, and I think it is important to acknowledge the true predators: Carole Baskin, Doc Antle, and Joe Exotic.
When describing Carole Baskin, the only appropriate word that comes to mind is "hypocrite." She made her name in the big cat industry by domesticating bobcats and lynx for sale as pets. In her instructional video on how to bottle-feed a lynx kitten, she even says, "it might seem too early to take them away from the mothers, but that's how to be sure they make good pets." I will acknowledge that she initially took in these bobcats to save them from a fur farm, the only credit I will be giving her at all. She continued to breed and sell cats, the very behaviors she attacks Joe Exotic for throughout the documentary, using Big Cat Rescue as a facade to demonstrate her "care" for the animals.
The rest of her story arc describes the vast array of circumstantial evidence that suggests she murdered her husband and fed him to the tigers, and quite frankly, I'm shocked she wasn't at least arrested. I mean, really, who words their will stating in the first sentence, "Upon my sudden disappearance?" The answer: no one. The whole situation is incredibly suspicious and makes my stomach turn. Alas, it is possible that a woman who may have committed premeditated murder is not the person I detest most in this whole industry.
Bhagavan "Doc" Antle:
This man made me cringe for every single second of screen time he had. Something seemed off about him instantly when he was telling Goode and the rest of the film crew how to introduce him in his first establishing shot. My initial impression was that he was a bit of an ass, for lack of a better word, but he struck me as a harmless entertainer with a genuine interest in animals.
That is, until I kept watching.
This man is the most foul individual in the entire documentary. He is more than likely a sexual predator, luring young girls to "intern" at his establishment, giving them poor living conditions and low pay so they can't really leave, and making them wear "uniforms" that border on lingerie. His whole zoo operates similarly to a cult, a word Doc used facetiously in one of the talking-head shots of the series. Putting aside that it was common for people to "move up" in the company if they slept with him, he essentially made an employee get breast implants, and that he engages in an uncertain polyamorous lifestyle, let's talk animal care.
While he did state that it costs him approximately $10,000 a year per tiger to feed them properly (compared to Joe's estimate he gave the crew which was $3,000) there were also instances where seemingly healthy tigers would suddenly disappear. Rumors circulated about Doc putting tiger cubs who outgrew their cute phase into a gas chamber, and honestly it wouldn't surprise me if that were true. The fact is due to his over-the-top nature and generally off-putting personality, I have no idea what to think. He dismisses all claims of animal mistreatment and claims that he thought the series would shed light on conservation efforts rather than the lives of big cat collectors. Quite frankly, I wish that is what I watched.
This one hurts me the most to write because I truly believe that Joe got into the big cat business for the good of the animals. I want to believe that his intentions were initially good but were warped by the lack of funding and stress. I'd like to believe that, but I don't know if I can now. Having watched each episode twice, I picked up on small things that I didn't notice the first time around, like the suggestion that Joe had someone set the gator house and studio on fire to get rid of video evidence that might incriminate him for criminal activity or that Travis - one of Joe's young, straight husbands - was hinting at suicidal ideation before the "accident" with the gun. On the subject of Joe's husbands, it is troubling that both Travis and John actually identified as straight men. So, why then, did they stay with Joe all that time?
I think between the marijuana, the meth, and the gifts, Joe provided those young men with simple pleasures that fueled their addictions to the point that he had them under his complete control. Although it may not seem so, Joe has the ability to manipulate those around him. Hell, he had me believing that he was a good guy that just wanted to help big cats and wildlife conservation efforts. A scene that stuck with me was when the female tiger was giving birth and Joe immediately took the babies away from the mother using what looked to be a metal pole to retrieve the young cubs. That, for me, was where I stopped feeling like Joe was a victim, like he wants the world to believe.
Regarding the whole "murder for hire" plot, I don't know if he did it or not. I don't know if Jeff Lowe and Alan Glover and Tim Stark were all in on a larger scheme to get Joe locked up. I don't know why James Garretson really decided to work with federal investigators (or why there was a shot of him on a wave-runner set to "Eye of the Tiger" for that matter). I'm not a lawyer or an expert in that field, but having an illegal lemur doesn't seem like a federal offense large enough to force a person into being a confidential informant. I also don't know how Joe Exotic is the only one of this lot who ended up in prison. Regardless, if he truly was looking at almost an eighty-year sentence, I think the twenty-two he is to serve is fair.
We learn at the end of the series that approximately 4,000 tigers are left in the wild while nearly double that live in captivity. Knowing those figures as well as the number of tigers that exist between Big Cat Rescue, Myrtle Beach Safari, and the GW Zoo, I am disappointed in the quality of treatment for many of the world's captive tigers at the hands of the cast of Tiger King.
I could go on longer about the smaller cast members, talk about how Reinke and Saff (and maybe Erik Cowie) were the only decent people in the entire series who seemed to genuinely care for the animals, and ponder the reason that Dillon has for staying with Joe while he's incarcerated, but both my fingers and my heart ache from writing. If anything is clear at the end of this series it is that we know the identities of the true predators. And only one is in a cage.