Tiger King March 30, 2020
t didn’t take a seven-episode-long Netflix docuseries to convince me that the private ownership of big, exotic cats (i.e., lions, tigers, other oh-mys) is fundamentally unethical and cruel. It does, however, take a seven-episode-long true-crime-inflected Netflix docuseries — a new, compulsively watchable one called Tiger King — to even begin to pick apart the batty dramas I never knew existed between several interconnected big-cat
profiteers currently making a name for themselves in the U.S.
Tiger King is most concerned with a feud between two personalities specifically. One of the parties is Joe Exotic (neé Joseph Maldonado-Passage), who, for about 20 years, owned and operated the Seaworld-esque, 16-acre Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in nowheresville Oklahoma. There, Exotic bred tigers and other well-muscled felines and built a business around customers taking photos with and watching shows starring his “pets.” He was once so high-profile, Shaquille O'Neal even stopped by G.W. Zoo to see what all the fuss was about.
The other party in the beef is Carole Baskin. Baskin is the chief executive officer of a Tampa, Fla.-based “sanctuary” called Big Cat Rescue, which is beloved by animal-rights activists and has a loyal and large social-media following. (The organization has upward of 2 million followers on Facebook, whom Baskin greets in vlogged updates as her “cool cats and kittens.”) Baskin, in contrast to the more blatantly exploitative Exotic, looks to give displaced felines in need of a rescue a new, permanent home. Not in their natural habitats, though, but on her 67-acre property. People can pay to look at but not touch them. (Before the modern-day iteration of Big Cat Rescue, Baskin ran a fauna-laden bed and breakfast with smaller wild kitties.) To the eyes of Baskin and organizations like PETA, someone like Exotic has a most-wanted-list wickedness to him. A lot of Tiger King is spent chronicling how Baskin and her crew tried to stop Exotic in his tracks over the years, with the latter dependably and pettily retaliating via logo-stealing and posting videos online during which he emphatically excoriates her.
Both people are akin to sketch-comedy characters — leads in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. As noted often on Twitter, Exotic is like an over-the-top Danny McBride character made real. He has a skunkish mullet; his face is decorated by numerous barely hooked piercings. His body is painted with tattoos; his sartorial choices might be described as redneck-chic, as much enamored of patchy denim as colorfully patterned silks. He always has a gun with him. Baskin is scarily serene — a middle-aged flower child. Her corn-colored hair is unnervingly long; fit for a Coachella outing, she almost exclusively dons kitty prints and bright, primary-colored crowns of faux flora. She is almost always riding a bike.
The meat of the series, we’re told early on, is that, in February, 2016, Exotic, all-consumed by his hatred of Baskin, tried to have her killed. (Earlier this year, he started a two-decade-long prison sentence.) But as the tirelessly bizarre show unravels, it reveals itself a great deal thornier than a streamlined, multi-episode leadup to Exotic’s harebrained, homicidal plot — a charting of his rise and subsequent fall. The series is directed by Eric Goode (who appears in the documentary, always bemused, a few times) and Rebecca Chaiklin, who worked on the project for several years. It not only covers the minutiae of Exotic’s and Baskin’s personal and professional lives but also the travails of other big-cat entrepreneurs who have been in some way involved with their circle, like quasi-cult leader Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, actual Tony Montana inspiration Mario Tabraue, and indubitable con artist Jeff Lowe. If dramatized, Tiger King could make for a Lynchian, leopard-printed answer to David Jacobs’ Dallas (1978-1991). (Apparently, a dramatic series with Kate McKinnon as Baskin is in the works.)
As I watched Tiger King, with increasing frequency I texted some form of “this show is crazy” to my friends. Much time can be spent picking apart the idiosyncrasies of the people who populate the documentary. Exotic moonlights as a country-music singer; he has had his own local TV channel, and at one point was planning on becoming a reality star. Exotic as well as Antle are polygamists: the gay Exotic has had multiple husbands at a time whom he typically wedded around the time they turned 19 who later revealed they were straight; Antle has a shifting crew of shapely female lovers who cheerily also do basically all the work at his enclosure. Tabraue, who can be chatted with by appointment only, casually talks about the people he’s killed when not frolicking with his pets. The show is also narratively glutted. In addition to its murder-for-hire plot, it contains a mysterious disappearance, rampant worker exploitation, an accidental suicide, a tragic arson, a failed run for president (and then governor) on Exotic’s part, and more.
Tiger King is certifiably messy — both constructionally and ethically. When Goode and Chaiklin ventured out to make the documentary, they most of all sought to shine a light on the disarray and hidden abuses omnipresent in the exotic-animal ownership milieu. (There are currently more tigers in captivity than in the wild.) But the show so much puts at the forefront the cartoonish personalities and melodramas of its chief subjects that it really isn’t until the end of the show that the very-real problem of animal abuse is seriously addressed. The aims of Goode and Chaiklin seem concurrently earnestly well-intentioned and cynically tabloidish.
There are a lot of bold claims made in the show without much bulletproof evidence. The third episode is entirely dedicated to the allegation that Baskin might have killed her multi-millionaire second husband and fed him to a pack of tigers to officially start up her sanctuary. Later on, it’s speculated whether Exotic burned down a portion of his property to both try to set Baskin up and destroy footage that could potentially be used against him. Both events are more backed by plausible conjecture than damning proof. (Though the conjecture, I’ll admit, is as convincing as conjecture can be.) Many subjects invoke their struggles with substance abuse and their mental health, but they’re framed like asides, provocative anecdotes. Life-changing incidents become quirks. One of Exotic’s employees shares that he lost his legs not because of anything G.W. Zoo-related but because of “a ziplining accident”; another loses her arm on the job and returns to work immediately because she believes in what she does so much.
The show, however, does do a pretty good job exposing and then grappling
with the suspect and so-far unchecked labor practices perpetuated by these people. Antle has his “apprentices,” whom he allegedly pressures to sleep with him for professional gain, usually working literally all day with no break, at a rate of $100 a week. Exotic’s live-in employees (all of whom called poorly maintained trailers from Exotic home) only ever ate the same meat fed to the cats, though they always got first dibs when the delivery truck — full of expired items from Walmart — arrived. They were also paid around $400 a month; many of them are addicted to drugs, and/or are coming from homelessness.
Baskin has an army of dedicated volunteers. But their hours are unfathomably long and their duties are extremely physically demanding. Those still in thrall to the owners don’t seem to mind; one even proudly proclaims that she’s missed Christmas festivities to be at Big Cat Rescue. This is one of many types of people most wont to be preyed on.
I thought a lot about what would happen if the currently-in-place booms turned to busts, especially taking into consideration Exotic's fall. What would happen if you were suddenly no longer able to take care of so many giant, wild cats? I particularly think about this now because I just read that Baskin has for now inevitably temporarily closed Big Cat Rescue amid COVID-19 concerns. At the time I’m writing this I don’t know how long the pandemic is going to go on as much as I don’t know how Baskin is going to feed so many creatures on donations alone. I don’t want to mull too much over either.
“People, every day, they’re like, ‘you must have the most incredible life, to live with 187 big cats,’” Exotic, pre-fall, giddily says to the camera early in the series. I jotted this line down right away when I heard it because it was so ludicrous. Too freaky a responsibility to make the giddiness understandable. Later on I viewed it, with the numbers changed, as an out-of-touch statement easily applied to the majority of the major players in Tiger King. Now I look more closely at the claim’s irony. Those 187 big cats, unknown to Exotic at the time, unwittingly played a large part in his descent into a not-so-incredible life — and also should have never been in it at all. A-
oes anyone really win in the exotic-cats-ownership realm? The personalities of Tiger King all consider themselves animal-rights activists in some form or another. But even if you run a successful enterprise, like Baskin and Antle (Exotic, spoiler alert, is only temporarily lucrative), is a life truly well lived if you’re ultimately chained to an effort that, no matter the ethical details, robs wild animals their ability to be a wild animal, and yourself of lasting