Quarantine has freed up time for many people, as most practices, games, meetings, and other events have been canceled or postponed. Of course, with this free time, there’s only one thing to do: stream. Users have fled to Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, and a variety of other sites in record numbers to keep themselves entertained. But, this review isn’t about those other platforms. It’s about Netflix’s wildly popular documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.
The documentary focuses on Joe Exotic, the owner of an exotic animal zoo called the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, located in Oklahoma. An interesting character even without his obsession with big cats, Joe is a gay man who for most of the documentary has two husbands, wears almost only flashy clothing that is often animal themed, a musician, a TV show host, a governor and presidential candidate, as well as a the designer of his own underwear line. Add that all together with an exotic zoo filled with tigers, lions, and a variety of other interesting animals and you’ve already got a great show. But of course, there’s more.
Joe, at his zoo, is surrounded by a circle of very dedicated employees that work for relatively low wages despite the high risk and also live on the premises in very cramped and dingy quarters. A very diverse group of workers, they all have one common trait, which is of course their dedication to helping and loving for the animals under their care. However, not everyone is a fan of Joe’s zoo as well as his breeding and selling of tiger cubs, and it’s inevitable that he makes enemies with PETA and other similar organizations. His main enemy, however, is Carole Baskin, the owner of a tiger sanctuary in Florida.
While separated geographically, Carole and Joe feuded from afar, with Carole speaking out against Joe’s zoo, especially the cub petting. She also disrupted his traveling “act” where he’d bring tiger cubs to malls, by urging her supporters to spam the malls with emails to try and get them to not allow him to bring his show to the mall.
Joe, on the other hand, constantly referenced Carole on his show as he made fun of, called out, and attempted to bring as much attention as possible to her slightly murky past. This took many forms, but in extreme examples he would shoot, blow up, or attack various dummies or representations of Baskin. The easiest way for Joe to attack Carole, however, was in reference to her ex-husband who disappeared rather suddenly under suspicious circumstances. It was often insinuated that Baskin fed her husband to the tigers, and Joe ruthlessly attacked that rumor, even making a music video called “Here Kitty Kitty,” which showed a Baskin look alike feeding meat to a tiger, with the meat of course representing her deceased husband.
Tiger King was a very interesting watch, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a few hours on their hands. It was addicting to watch the antics of Joe and some of the other characters, and as Joe’s story unfolded, the documentary only became easier to watch. Nearly every character had some sort of interesting trait to them which allowed for them all to add to the show in their own way, in addition to the main story between Joe and Carole. In a similar way to reality TV shows, the interesting characters tend to make up for when the main storyline isn’t solid enough to hold up the entire doc, which it sometimes wasn’t for Tiger King. At times, the documentary can be a little slow, and the story definitely feels stretched over 7 episodes, but nevertheless each episode has just enough content to make one yearn for the next. It’s a crazy story that while interesting, has quite a bit that’s based off rumors or crazy ideas that really make the documentary unique and especially entertaining.
After the documentary’s first 7 episodes went over so well, Netflix released an 8th episode hosted by Joel McHale. The episode, while less story driven, brought the doc to a close with interviews with the characters, trying to close up any loose ends. While not the most interesting, it was nice to see the characters be able to express their thoughts in a less edited way, and brought light to some facts or details that might have been overlooked in the first few episodes.
The main takeaway in this documentary, for me, was how sketchy the exotic animal industry truly is. There’s clearly a lot going on beyond the scenes, and while certainly all the suspicions and rumors presented in the documentary aren’t true, I wouldn’t be surprised if their was some truth to these suspicions. From appearances alone, I found both Joe and Carole to have rather bleak and dreary setups, at least in comparison to a traditional zoo or the sanctuary of Doc Antle, another heavily mentioned exotic zoo owner in the documentary. But, even Doc appeared to be a shady character, as an ex-employee of his alleged that the fastest way to move up at his zoo was to have sex with Antle insinuating a sex cult of a sort, he utilized the practice of greatly underpaying employees that many other exotic animal zoos follow, and he continues to breed cubs to this day. That aside, while sanctuaries for exotic animals are certainly necessary, it seems like there are more regulations that might need to be imposed on these places in order to straighten up a very crooked industry.
In addition, many of the people mentioned in the film attempt to justify their actions under the name of saving the tigers, and trying to save the species. But, for people around exotic animals all day they seem to grossly misunderstand the contrast between preservation, and conservation, with one condemning the animals to an eventual existence only in cages, and the other saving the species in the wild.
Of course, the final thing to mention is the resolution of the various stories talked about in the documentary. Did Carole kill her husband? Maybe, maybe not, the situation around his disappearance is quite shadowy. I find it more likely that while she may not have killed him, she definitely knows more than she’s told people, even if she didn’t cover him in sardine oil and feed him to the tigers. And Joe, was he set up? I don’t think so. Maybe an unpopular opinion amidst a large free Joe Exotic movement, but with his impulsive mindset amidst his issues with the struggling zoo, it wouldn’t be too ridiculous to say that he might have tried to get rid of one of his main adversaries: Carole Baskin. One thing that really stuck out to me, in episode eight, was that all of his employees all said, with confidence, that Joe should be in prison. I think if his own staff is that sure he’s guilty, most of which have no good reason to lie, that’s proof enough for me that he wasn’t set up by Jeff Lowe.
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