Aside from the rare national news story like the Ohio man who set his big cats free in 2011, the public rarely gets to peek inside the wild world of exotic animal owners in America. But they’re in the spotlight again with Netflix’s new docu-series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The series grabbed the attention of a nation riddled by pandemic, with little else to do but stay inside and watch TV. It’s a compelling true-crime story full of shocks, from murder-for-hire to a potential Nxivm-like sex cult. But the salacious details aren’t necessarily the only things that vaulted this seven-episode opus to the top of Netflix’s current top 10 watched list. The sheer swaggering arrogance on display in the series may be reminding reviewers of the present situation in America, and the collective anxiety people are facing.
Tiger King follows big-cat collector and exhibitor Joe Exotic, his employees at Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, and his rivalry with Carole Baskin and her husband, the owners of Florida’s Big Cat Rescue. Exotic thinks Baskin murdered her millionaire first husband, and he may be right. (The man disappeared one night, and has never been found.) Baskin believes Exotic is engaging in animal cruelty and illegal trade, and that his touted devotion to conservation is a cover-up.
Each man introduced in Tiger King is wilder than the last, especially those who work with Joe Exotic himself. Two-toned mullets, Prince Albert piercings, ragged fringe jackets, and meth-mouths abound. These men outwardly appear to be stereotypes of the exact sorts of men we’d expect to see jumping into shoddy tiger cages, tangling with the animals for a living.
More often than not, the exotic animal keepers featured in Tiger King are shown cuddling baby versions of their larger animals. You’ve probably never seen this many tiger cubs in one place: When episode 2 introduces one of Exotic’s mentors, Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle (owner of Virginia’s Myrtle Beach Safari) and his retinue of women zoo keepers, they’re all cradling the adorable cats. It becomes clear that both Antle and Exotic use — and possibly breed — tiger cubs for visitor interactions and photo ops at their respective properties. The larger animals, including the hybrid ligers, which can grow up to 11 feet in length and weigh over 700 pounds, are kept in enclosures and away from visitors. But Exotic, Antle, and their employees all enter those enclosures for shows and exhibits, with the nonchalance of someone encountering a stray cat while walking through a park.
The sheer hubris these men exhibit is astounding. They’re utterly confident that they can own and bend dangerous predators to their will, while keeping themselves and their visitors safe — with no formal training, varying degrees of inadequate facilities, and little more than mullets and a prayer.
And yet in a way, this smug obliviousness is familiar.
As Americans join the rest of the world in social distancing, quarantines, and isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re hearing more and more about how American culture is conceptually built around rugged individualism, and the problems that archetype causes.
We’re all living with the consequences of people prioritizing individual liberties, freedoms, and self-reliance above the needs of society. It’s why so many people respond to poverty with questions like, “But why don’t you have money saved for an emergency like this?” It’s why, as Julia Ioffe wrote for GQ, “90 percent of Americans report having shown up to work sick, even with the flu. It is why the anti-vaxxer movement flourishes here.” It’s why crowds of people stubbornly took to the streets on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in places like Chicago and Nashville, in spite of the dramatic warnings about the novel coronavirus. It’s why college students (who are, it should be mentioned, not millennials) continued to flood the beaches for Spring Break in Florida, even after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and cities around the world began enacting shelter-in-place orders.
At the rate the virus is spreading in certain areas of America (we now have more confirmed cases than any other country, with more than 80,000 infected), stepping into a bar, 200 bodies deep, or lounging out on a crowded beach seems just as risky as climbing into the cage of a wild tiger. For Saff, one of Exotic’s employees, that kind of indifference to common sense meant losing an arm during what was meant as a routine feeding. For a healthy person battling COVID-19, the same indifference to danger could mean medical complications from developing pneumonia to permanent lung damage, not to mention endangering high-risk victims. Yet for some, like those spring-breakers on Florida beaches, the risks don’t seem tangible until the worst has happened — and ignoring risks feels like embracing individualism.
Maybe Joe Exotic’s wild tale subconsciously tickles at the part of our brains that rankles at being asked to set aside our deep-set American culture for the greater good. Social distancing isn’t easy, even for those championing it as necessary. As we’re shut up together, counting the things we can’t do, it can certainly feel like some of our personal liberties have been stripped away. As so many of us turn to television for comfort, distraction, or the simple novelty of having something to do, the personal liberty and freedom that Exotic’s big cat-based hubris represents even more of a fascinating temptation than it might have been in calmer times.
For those of us working from our couches (or not working at all), watching the days run together, dressing down and huddling together on social media and eating cold rotisserie chickens straight from the carcass between Zoom conferences, it’s easy to relate to the desire to be free to do whatever the hell we want right now. When Exotic says there’ll be a “Waco” if the government comes in to take his animals or shut down his zoo, his desire to define his own life, and continue it uninterrupted exactly as he sees fit, becomes relatable even as it’s nonsensical.
The self-proclaimed Tiger King is currently serving 22 years in prison on two murder-for-hire charges (in no way helped by his social-media posts where he extensively bragged about his plans for violence against Carole Baskin), and six counts of violating the Lacey and Endangered Species Acts, both of which exist to prohibit the illegal sale of and protect at risk animals. His hubris, his rugged individualism, his obliviousness to danger and the greater good — they all played large parts in his downfall. The details are grabby and compelling, and as we face down the pandemic that gave us the time to get to know Joe Exotic in the first place, it’s easy to relate to his confidence and freedom. But if we try to share it, we may find it’ll be our downfall, just as it was his.
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