By Amber Avila
This review contains spoilers!
Netflix inadvertantly released a pop culture sensation with the new documentary miniseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” at the perfect time as we all sit at home amid the Covid-19 crisis. Its release has sparked memes and conversation on social media, taking the internet completely by storm during this time of social distancing.
According to Variety, the show has been viewed in 64 million households worldwide since its premiere on March 20. Since then, it has become the topic of conversation and resulted in a bonus episode “The Tiger King and I,” a TMZ special. There has even been gossip about who to cast in the planned big-screen adaptation.
The series is about several big-cat owning facilities, otherwise known as private zoos and their fascinating owners. The star of the show is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, an openly gay, country-singing, mullet-wearing, polygamist and redneck private zoo owner in Oklahoma who illegaly bred tigers. He even once ran for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 after his failed attempt for the presidency in 2016.
The main narrative of the series is the rivalry between Joe Exotic and other private zoo-owner Carole Baskin. Animal activist and founder of “Big Cat Rescue,” Baskin also became one of the biggest centers of attention on the show as it explored the suspicions of her possibly killing her missing husband Don Lewis back in the 1990’s.
The show is full of interesting characters such as another private zoo owner named Kevin “Doc” Antle in South Carolina. He is a very ego-centric and demanding character, who also participates in strange sexual relationships with all of his female employees, which has become a functional pseudo-cult. We also meet Jeff Lowe, who was Exotic’s former business partner. He would smuggle baby tigers into Las Vegas hotels to gain the attention of women. Despite the fallout between Exotic and Lowe, he currently owns Exotic’s former zoo, “The G.W. Exotic Animal Park.”
The main focus, however, and main twist is that Exotic is now serving a 22-year sentence in jail for wildlife crimes and conviction for the murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin.
The numerous situations that we see unfold throughout “Tiger King” show us that it is a story about a circus of people and not of animals. The people involved and their erratic behavior is the prime focus of the show while the tigers and other animals are unfortunately just the backdrop. These people’s hypocrisy, excessiveness, and selfishness run rampant, so much so that at times their absurdity seems fictional.
Although this show is undoubtedly entertaining, the directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode did not focus enough on the main problem of exotic animals held in cages, however, which is very upsetting. We see the animals throughout the show, but the focus is primarily on the personal drama of the people who own them. The owners use the animals solely for their narcissistic pursuits for fame and power in the world of owning exotic animals.
“‘Tiger King’ barely scratches the surface of the suffering these animals endure and the extensive networks of cruelty involved in breeding and selling by Antle and Joe Exotic to other wildlife menageries,” The Humane Society of The United States said in a press release.
According to The Washington Post, there are somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 tigers living in captivity in the United States. Around 4,000 remain in the wild in Asia. There is currently no law restricting big-cat ownership, but in the show, Baskin does visit Congress in an attempt to help pass “The Big Cat Safety Act.” This act involves restricting the trade of big cats and contact between them and the public. Although Baskin does work for animal rights, there still is a sense of hypocrisy to her since she criticizes Exotic, yet also owns a big cat sanctuary with tiny cages and profits off of them by providing paid tours.
In the end, “Tiger King” will continue to bring in views and enthrall audiences with its absurdity. Although the show spans five years, the directors never dove deep into the problem right in front of them the whole time: holding exotic animals in captivity for the profit of greedy people. Sadly, the series was never about the tigers or other animals in the first place, but about the owners and their stardom.