*Contains spoilers for “Tiger King.”
After watching “Tiger King,” I have a lot of complicated feelings about it. I’m sure those who watched it, heard about it from a friend or saw a meme about it do, too.
Netflix’s docuseries, which was released March 20, is already one of the streaming platform’s most-viewed pieces of true-crime content. “Tiger King” has garnered more viewers than “The Staircase,” “The Keepers” and “The Ted Bundy Tapes” did in their first weeks on Netflix. This could, of course, be attributed to the fact that most U.S. residents are under stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, but it’s probably more due to the documentary’s content.
One of the least shocking moments in the series is when Kelci Saffery, one of Joe’s employees, is attacked by a tiger and Joe (after donning a sherpa-lined EMT jacket, of course) tells guests in his zoo’s gift shop what happened:
“One of the employees stuck their arm through the cage, and a tiger tore her arm off,” Joe says, matter-of-factly. “I can give you your money back or a rain check. Why don’t you come back on another day?”
The most shocking aspect of “Tiger King” is not the polygamy, or the cult-ish environment fostered by Doc Antle, or Carole Baskin’s wardrobe, or the fact that Joe Exotic won a considerable amount of votes in a gubernatorial campaign or the murder-for-hire plot looming over the series.
The most shocking part of “Tiger King” is the degree of blatant animal abuse being perpetrated by its subjects and the documentary’s failure to address that abuse more seriously — as well as the employees at Joe Exotic and Doc Antle’s zoos not being treated much better than the tigers.
If you haven’t seen “Tiger King,” these are its three main characters:
Joe Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic,” is the titular “King” of the documentary and former owner of G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla. At the park, he bred tigers illegally and abused them.
Carole Baskin is Joe’s rival, and runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., where she and her husband care for formerly abused lions, tigers and other animals. They also advocate for “ending the private possession and trade in exotic cats through legislation and education,” according to BCR’s website.
Doc Antle runs Myrtle Beach Safari, which appears similar to Joe Exotic’s park.
The fact that Joe Exotic was found guilty of killing tigers and illegally selling them is overshadowed in the documentary by the fact that he’s also serving prison time for attempting to have Baskin murdered.
We’ll get to the murder plot in a minute, but Joe was convicted of falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act. An investigation nearly a decade ago into G.W. Exotic Animal Park by the Humane Society uncovered that the park’s tigers were “beaten and whipped,” and that guests were injured by tiger cubs.
According to National Geographic, “Tiger King” neglected to include “important information on big cats,” like the fact that a safe zoo or sanctuary “does not breed or allow hands-on interaction with animals,” especially cubs. They also provide their animals with ample room to roam, which Joe Exotic (surprise!) did not.
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The fact that Joe paid someone $3,000 to kill Baskin, following a longtime rivalry between the two rife with lawsuits, cyberbullying and targeted music videos from Joe, is insane. It’s even crazier when you learn that Baskin might have murdered her ex-husband, who disappeared in 1997. These people are reality television producers’ dreams.
But it’s disappointing and, frankly, disgusting that “Tiger King’s” producers chose to focus solely on the drama their subjects are embroiled in rather than delve into the animal abuse perpetrated by Joe Exotic and Doc Antle (who has been accused of killing cubs after they’re too old to interact with guests).
That’s because “Tiger King” doesn’t paint Joe to be the murderous villain he is, but rather a funny, deep V-neck-sporting wannabe-musician who was perfectly justified in illegally breeding tigers and subjecting them to appalling living conditions and abuse — then profiting off it.
But, of course, the documentary needed a villain, and its producers chose to make it Baskin instead, capitalizing on conspiracy theories that she killed her ex-husband and fed him to her tigers.
Even if she did (that’s another column), “Tiger King” still had a responsibility to focus just as much on the animals and the abuse they were suffering as much as the antics of their owners.
This might be the first Netflix true-crime docuseries I’ve watched that I would not, under any circumstances, recommend.