There has never been a better time to get into a Netflix docuseries. So, when I saw Tiger King (2020) promoted on Netflix, I thought to myself, ‘this is absolutely not the sort of show I would usually watch, but let’s give it a go.’ If you’re looking for a whole six hours during which you will not think about the global pandemic, this is the show for you.
Tiger King is, on the surface, a documentary about the sketchy world of big cat breeding in the US. However, no expectations can prepare you for the onslaught of insane characters and twists that unravel throughout the series. This is a cast that makes Mario Tabraue (a guy who smuggled drugs in snakes and was the literal inspiration for Scarface) look relatively normal when he makes a brief appearance. The claim of ‘murder, mayhem and madness’ is certainly an understatement when it comes to this show.
Gif Source: Giphy
We are introduced to the main players in the big cat industry. Joe Exotic, who is a breeder and former zoo operator of a Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and Carol Baskin, an animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. These are not names you will forget quickly. Other memorable personalities from the big cat scene also feature, including Doc Antle (another dodgy zoo keeper with multiple wives) and Jeff Lowe.
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Coming to this show with an open mind, I assumed it would be similar to other animal rights activist shows, such as Blackfish (2013), in that it would lead the viewer to support Carol Baskin. Baskin is the obvious heroine as a figure who claims to want to save the abused cats at her non-profit sanctuary. However, the conclusion to make from this series is actually a lot more complicated. We start to realise this at the end of the second episode when an interviewee mentions that Carol’s previous husband is ‘dead and missing’, much to the shock of the producer who stops to ask ‘Wait. How does someone’s husband just go missing?’. Without spoiling the series, I can tell you that the show then explores an onslaught of accusations from Joe Exotic and others that Carol Baskin had killed her husband and fed him to the tigers… and she isn’t exactly portrayed as the innocent target. In fact, Baskin has since issued a statement about how unhappy she is with her portrayal in the docuseries.
By the end of the series, my feelings about Joe Exotic were also tangled. He has clearly taken advantage of people using the cats and drugs, took tiger cubs across the country on damaging tours, and cut corners with his business. At the same time, we can see that he’s also a victim of abuse. There are moments of genuine care for the cats, and he gave homeless convicts with no other prospects a place to live and work.
Near the end of the series, Exotic reflects on what he saw when they moved two chimpanzees to the Great Apes Centre in Florida. After keeping the chimpanzees in separate, adjacent cages for ten years, they were finally placed together. The two chimpanzees then hugged each other. Exotic asks remorsefully, ‘Did I deprive them of that for ten years? … Yep.’ He seems like a man who perhaps started out with misguided intentions and ended up on a very rocky path when drugs, his ego, money and fame got the better of him.
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There are no real winners in Tiger King. Exotic gets the fame he always wanted, but he’s behind bars. The irony of his situation is palpable. Others who definitely should be with him in prison are not. Further, Carol Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue doesn’t seem to be far from the other animal parks in the US, in fact, its facilities are far from impressive. Ultimately, Eric Goode and the producers leave it to the viewers to decide on a conclusion. It’s a narrative which, if nothing else, tells itself.
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