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The Bonkers Appeal of Tiger King

Heavy lies the crown in Netflix’s bewildering documentary series about a glamorous but unbalanced zookeeper.

Courtesy of Netflix

In retrospect, Carole Baskin probably should have taken it more seriously the day her mailbox exploded with snakes. A self-appointed champion for the rights of big cats, Carole received those snakes from Joe Exotic, a mulleted zookeeper who does not wear underwear but does record country music. In the video for his ballad “I Saw a Tiger,” Joe stands on the roof of an emergency vehicle and croons about making tiger eye contact. It’s magnificent.

Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is the protagonist of the bewildering new Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, which has proven an enormous hit among isolated Americans seeking entertainment. (Cardi B has even tweeted about it.) Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, is his chief antagonist (although Joe’s enemies multiply as the seven-part series goes on). We meet Carole as she takes us on a tour of the graves of her own former cats, tears welling as she explains that “Champagne was a Canada lynx.” Her husband, Howard, thinks “it would be fair to say that Carole is the Mother Theresa of cats.”

Both Carole and Joe keep big cats in cages on their large estates—Carole’s in Florida, Joe’s in Oklahoma—but one identifies as an activist, the other a businessman. 

For either to prosper, it seems, the other must be extinguished. Their mutual hatred generates a white heat that could burn through your laptop screen. What unspools is a frankly incredible story involving a vast array of crimes, criminals, and the enormous animals they love. As a zookeeper named Erik Cowie observes, “These people are fucking insane, man.”

“The arm is completely gone, we do not have time to wait.” This is Joe speaking to emergency services, at the beginning of episode two. Kelci “Saff” Saffery, one of his employees, has had a limb ripped from her body by a tiger. Her wound is blurred out, but we see her lying on the ground, armless.

She goes back to work a week later. Saff is one of the gang of charming misfits who work for Joe Exotic, in thrall to his extravagant personality (he loves a sequined shirt) and the animals he owns. There’s also Erik, a handsome Tom Petty–alike zookeeper; John Finlay, Joe’s handsome husband; Travis Maldonado, Joe’s even more handsome other husband; and John Reinke, the zoo’s manager, who has lower-leg prosthetics decorated with the insignia of the Insane Clown Posse. Joe pays them each $150 per week. It’s a dark carnival, to be sure.

Underneath the surface tune of Tiger King, which is about rivalry and murder and conflicting visions of what makes a good life for a big cat, this ugly note of toxic control grows louder and louder. 

According to Carole, there are more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are living in the wild across the world. Joe owns 187 big cats, we learn. Tiger King then introduces us to the other major “players” in the private big cat ownership industry. Every last one is an egomaniacal white man.

Dr. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle in The Tiger King
(Courtesy of Netflix)

There’s Dr. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a repulsive doctor of “mystical science” who provided the animals for Ace Ventura and Doctor Doolittle. He rides an elephant named Bubbles around his private zoo, and we see him clutch a tiger in his arms as he zooms down a waterslide.  The zoo is staffed by young female “apprentices” who work seven days a week. A former employee recalls living on the property in a cockroach-strewn horse stall and allowing Antle to arrange for her to get breast implants so that she could get a few days’ sleep. She says Antle prefers virgins, because then he can initiate a sexual bond that keeps them on his compound as cheap, 24/7 labor. Antle is a big fan of the Hindu concept of Shaktipat, meaning the transmission of wisdom from one person to the other, except that he exclusively conducts it through touch: “Shaktipat of the penis,” the former employee calls it.

Then there’s Jeff Lowe, a man who also maintains multiple relationships and is in the habit of luring women into his hotel suites with tiger kittens. In the final episode, we see him sitting next to his pregnant wife, Lauren, explaining that next week she will give birth: “Then we get Lauren back in the gym.” Lowe eventually goes into business with another big cat enthusiast, Tim Stark, who admires Doc Antle’s style of zookeeping: “How the fuck do you got these women trained?” he marvels. 

Tiger King turns out not to be about big cats themselves but about the way that controlling men use them to enhance their charisma, trick vulnerable young people into working for free, and generally treat them as extensions of themselves. Though there are (many) joyful and funny moments in Tiger King, watching that dynamic play out over and over again is nauseating. Several crocodiles and a handsome young man die as a result of Joe Exotic’s behavior. All of them are innocent.

Director Eric Goode (once profiled by the New Yorker for his reptile obsession) explains in the first episode that he chanced across this story when investigating a Floridian snake dealer, whom he discovered was keeping a snow leopard in the back of a van in 100-degree heat. That sent him on a journey “to investigate what people are doing keeping big cats in this country.” (She doesn’t appear in the show, but Tiger King was co-written and co-directed by Rebecca Chaiklin.) 

Eagle-eyed (or -eared) viewers will remember that this story was actually already reported at length in New York magazine last year and also in a six-part podcast series from Wondery, both made by the reporter Robert Moor. The new show isn’t based on his work—indeed, Moor told me that Goode and Chaiklin had already started their work before Moor published his.

Rick Kirkham, The Tiger King’s in-house storyteller
(Courtesy of Netflix)

So here is a rare chance to consume the same story, told three ways. Having liked the podcast and the article, I wasn’t sure that Netflix had anything new to offer. I could not have been more wrong. What marks the Netflix version as exceptional is the character of Rick Kirkham, the saturnine TV producer who shot Joe Exotic’s internet show and tried to make a reality TV show about him. Kirkham looks and sounds like Humphrey Bogart, forever smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee under his big black hat. He’s the show’s built-in storyteller, a noirish figure whose position allows him to observe from the periphery, helping to structure Tiger King into a fable rather than a spectacle.

That’s not to say it isn’t spectacular. It turns out that nothing compares to watching a streak of tigers (the other collective noun is an “ambush”) running, so many together that their bodies start to blur into an impression of fur and teeth. In the words of the horrible Doc Antle, “Nothing is cooler, sexier, and more significant to the world we live in today than a tiger.” He may be right, but the tigers’ feelings on the matter remain unknown.