If you thought going to regular zoos was uncomfortable, prepare yourself for a look into the disgusting world of private zoos featuring exotic animals and the charismatic, bizarre and repugnant individuals wrapped up in that business.
The main attraction is chronicling the rise and slow degradation of the empire of title character Joe Exotic, the redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, drug-addicted, fame-chasing, gay polygamist.
“Tiger King,” a limited documentary series, hit Netflix on March 20 and took the world by storm, flooding social media with memes and earning very high viewership during the country’s current lockdown.
What makes this show worth watching despite its raffish subject matter?
A Colorful Cast of Chaotic Misfits
Let’s start by introducing the main players in the saga. First off is Exotic, the protagonist (though I use that term loosely) of the series. He owned the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma for years and later turned his outlandish personality into a business by releasing music, products with his likeness on it and producing a daily web series.
He is the glue that holds the series together, as he is well known in the circle of private zoo owners throughout the U.S. and is the most willing to have himself filmed by the crew. He is an enigma, wearing flashy clothes and sporting a bizarre mullet while having two boyfriends living with him on the property.
Next is Carole Baskin, a direct opponent of Exotic. She operates Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for recovered big cats. She runs a website dedicated to exposing the ring of zoo owners buying and selling cubs illegally.
Exotic and Baskin spend the entirety of the series at each others’ throats, with Exotic constantly threatening and belittling her on his program. A lawsuit is filed which has disastrous results for Exotic. Later in the series, it is revealed that Baskin has a checkered and tragic past of her own.
At some point when the zoo begins to struggle financially, Exotic brings in Jeff Lowe, a rogue who lives a wild lifestyle and agrees to help fund the zoo. However, he is not liked by the staff and it is not revealed how this money was acquired, though several people involved state it is through shady means.
He brings in a few of his associates to the zoo and that creates a whirlwind reaction that leads to catastrophic consequences for everyone involved.
Also of note is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, one of the most famous breeders of big cats at his own private zoo at Myrtle Beach, T.I.G.E.R.S. and a mentor to Exotic. He helps set the stage and explains how many of the processes of running these zoos work, while also being shown to facilitate an almost cult-like atmosphere toward his female employees.
One more member of the cast that was only in one episode: Mario Tabraue. He is a former drug kingpin that used his own private zoo as a front before being arrested on racketeering charges in 1989. People have claimed that his actions played a part in inspiring the character of Tony Montana in the film Scarface.
Unlike Antle and Exotic, he had enough sense to forbid the crew from entering or filming his zoo and comes across as one of the few level-headed people in this saga.
A Complicated, Comical Compromising Mess
This is a documentary and follows true stories featuring these characters. Yet as a narrative, it can be clunky and confusing at times.
There are moments when the series jumps back and forth from one point in time to the next, especially in the final episodes and it isn’t always clear what’s going on. It wasn’t easy to figure out what year certain events occurred in and required a quick Google search every now and then.
It also doesn’t help that almost everyone interviewed could be seen as an unreliable narrator, as they all have an angle and a goal to reach through what they say. It makes for great drama and captivating TV but can be unsatisfying if someone wants clarity about this tale.
However, everyone interviewed for the project was essential. From the owners of the zoos to their workers that handled the day-to-day aspects and figures in the media that covered the story, their perspectives helped shed light on what it took to keep this kingdom prospering.
One thing is for sure: the story is far from over. Without going too much into spoilers, Exotic still has an ax to grind with his network of zoo owners. Lowe still has big plans for his own zoo and a mystery regarding Baskin has been reopened for investigation. I could see another season coming a few years down the line but that might anger fans that wanted a sense of closure to the events of the series
The documentary can look scattershot and messy in how they recap events but it didn’t bother me too much and helped feed the chaotic feel of what was going on. There was never any time to dwell on the specifics as another ridiculous moment was always around the corner.
“That show was insane,” Ashlee Herbert, a Sinclair student said. “It was a train wreck but I was captivated the whole entire time. It just kept getting worse/crazier and ironically, Joe gets a little bit of sympathy from me. I think what shocked me the most is how cheap these exotic animals are. Hearing that it’s only a couple grand to buy a baby tiger is CRAZY!”
A Story With No Winners
This is not a feel-good affair with an underdog to root for. While Exotic has a flashy personality and seems personable, he is still an unhinged man breeding endangered animals and keeping them in captivity, putting his ego and persona before the tigers in later events.
I also can’t quite root for Baskin either as she is a bit of a hypocrite. It can be inferred that Big Cat Rescue isn’t too different from the G.W. Zoo in how it displays the animals and unfairly compensates its workers.
The rest of the zoo owners, like Antle, Lowe and Tim Stark are also unlikeable. The only people that seem to be telling the truth and appear grounded in reality are the handlers and keepers of the G.W. Zoo and Joshua Dial, a campaign manager for Exotic’s 2018 bid for Oklahoma governor.
It is sad to see that the biggest victims of the constant squabbling between the players in this bizarre, niche portion of the zoo business are the animals themselves.
So what kept me and so many others invested until the end?
I have a few theories: One is the old cliche, that we can’t look away from a trainwreck, something so ugly that it becomes compelling, a good descriptor for the series.
I also think the filmmaker’s not taking a side in the issue made it easier to engage with the project. Nearly everyone interviewed for the series was unhappy with their portrayal, which I interpret as the truth of this story not being sugar-coated. These are weird, irresponsible people engaged in petty feuds at the expense of living creatures, and the show doesn’t lose sight of that.
Finally, whether I want to admit it or not, this taboo world of exotic animal petting displays and breeding is fascinating because I know so little about it and seeing the story told through such an outlandish and fun to watch the main character almost garners sympathy from me as the walls of his kingdom starts crumbling down.
The Verdict: Is This Worth Watching?
“Tiger King” is much more than meme fodder. It is a super entertaining look into the unseemly practice of private zoos. It uses a dynamic cast of characters to weave a web of lies and deception that almost makes you forget about the poor conditions these animals are living in.
And I enjoyed every minute of it.
I started the first episode one morning after seeing constant memes and hype from a few friends. I finished the series later that same afternoon.
I couldn’t look away from the bizarre situations and proclamations made by Exotic. I was taken aback by the many twists and turns that seal the fate of the zoo and the moments of betrayal I didn’t see coming.
This is a dark series about some truly heinous individuals but it is put together so well and the story is so unique that I couldn’t help but invest myself in it despite knowing how despicable it was. That’s a testament to the work of Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin.
It’s not for the faint of heart but if you like true crime stories and documentaries focusing on strange subcultures of society “Tiger King” will captivate you until the bitter end and then motivate you to rush out and find a wildlife charity to donate to so a sequel never happens.