There is a certain delight in watching the larger-than-life personalities of Netflix’s hugely popular docu-series Tiger King. Most of the documentary’s subjects are clearly in the wrong, but that’s part of the reason people have engaged with the show. Still, there’s a certain sticky feeling after watching it, and it’s hard to shake that sensation off.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness premiered on Netflix on March 20, and has been a social media sensation ever since. Following titular Tiger King Joe Exotic, the owner of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma, the series dives into the world of the big-cat trade and the ostentatious people within it. Tiger King has been a perfect storm of sensationalism, sweeping the nation at a time when looking at anything only distantly chaotic was a welcome escape.
Weeks later, all everyone can talk about is Joe Exotic (real name: Joe Maldonado-Passage); his nemesis Carole Baskin, who may or may not have killed her husband; zookeeper Doc Antle, who recruits young women to work at his zoo and coerces them into sexual relationships; and the scheming Jeff Lowe, who may or may not have set Joe up on murder-for-hire charges.
But while the Netflix-watching public is fixated on the show’s outlandish deeds and personalities, the real victims of the documentary — the people who worked under Joe, and the animals still in captivity — haven’t gotten nearly as much press. In that way, Tiger King echoes 2019’s dueling Fyre Fest documentaries, which capitalized on the sensationalized lies of con man Billy MacFarland but spent little time exploring how the Fyre Fest organizers completely exploited their Bahamian employees. Those workers offered their anecdotes, but their story wasn’t the focus. They were just the flourishes to make MacFarland’s dumpster fire burn even brighter.
At least in the case of Fyre and Fyre Fraud, a GoFundMe raised money for Maryann Rolle, the owner of the restaurant MacFarland never paid. There isn’t the same catharsis with Tiger King, because the victims can’t be financially compensated. The damage done to the zoo employees and the people pulled into Maldonado-Passage’s sphere isn’t monetary. Both private zoos featured heavily in the documentary, Maldonado-Passage’s G.W. Zoo and Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari, are still up and running. Big-cat breeding and trading continues. It’s similar to the way a lot of true-crime movies, like 2019’s Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, focus on the flashy elements and leave little to be said about the victims. It might be entertaining and wild for the joyride, but at the end, viewers at home have the luxury of turning off the television. The people and animals actually affected don’t.
Documentary-maker Eric Goode started the Tiger King project to originally focus on the animals, smuggling, and dark underbelly of the exotic animal world, with a focus on reptile trades. Goode, who runs a reptile and amphibian sanctuary, had an “in” to the scene. The way the project instead veered into a circus sideshow feels like an unintentional meta-commentary on the Goode’s subjects, who similarly may have started with good intentions before they turned to self-aggrandizement. Old footage of Joe Exotic gushing about how he wants to stop animal breeding seems to imply that he once cared passionately about animals, but once he got a taste of the fame and clout that comes with the big-cat world, he wanted more. Tiger King comes off the same way. His finished work isn’t a documentary about the pitfalls of exploiting animals, it’s just gawking at the outlandish people around them.
Tiger King’s final episode shifts the focus temporarily back to the animals, to the workers at Joe’s zoo who spent a huge chunk of their lives toiling for him. It’s emotional. As zookeeper Erik Cowie looks over old photos and recounts how much he cared for his animal charges, but couldn’t defy Maldonado-Passage about the animals’ poor treatment, he tears up. Joe’s first husband, John Finlay, who was coerced into the relationship at a young age, gets a tattoo to cover an old one featuring Joe’s name, and says Joe is a “nobody” to him now. Maldonado-Passage himself gives an anecdote about seeing two of his chimpanzees embrace for the first time, and almost appears to have a come-to-Jesus moment about the way he’s treated animals for years. Then the credits roll, and the juxtaposition of the sentimental moments to the garish Netflix promotional image for the show, featuring Joe against an American flag background and flanked by two tigers, is jarring. The bigger-picture consideration of who all these sensational acts hurt makes up less than a full episode of the series, a bandage slapped onto a gaping wound.
Enjoying Tiger King’s sensationalism by no means makes fans into bad people. It’s easy to get swept up in the Joe Exotic music videos, to jokingly theorize about whether Baskin killed her husband, and to gape at all the twists in the story. No one is defending Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, Doc Antle, or Jeff Lowe, beyond making jokes in their favor. If anything, everyone who watches the doc seems to agree that they’re all the bad guys, and that the world of big-cat breeding is toxic. But the focus is still on the flashy names, not the people and animals they took advantage of.
Tiger King is streaming on Netflix.
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