This article contains spoilers for Tiger King.
There is plenty of talk of “dog-eat-dog,” but none at all of “cat-eat-cat.” The eight-part Netflix Original documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, carves out plenty space for a “cat-eat-cat” world. Though much-touted and culturally significant, Tiger King is a wildly ethically worrisome docuseries premised on what would be featured on the headlines of dishy gossip magazines. It is a voyeuristic trash-show that is caged in—its title speaks for itself—piles and piles of mayhem and madness. It sells and it entertains, thoroughly devoid of thoughtful messaging.
Set across the American south where the ownership, trading, and exploitation of big cats is a viciously competitive undertaking, the story follows the eccentric feud between wild animal obsessives: tiger-breeder Joe Exotic and animal-rights activist Carole Baskin.
To describe them so simply does no justice to their surreal personas. Most of the series centres on the self-aggrandizing braggadocio of Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage. The redneck has hundreds of big cats, two drug-craving husbands who claim to be straight, multiple guns around his belt, iconic country-western songs (“I Saw A Tiger”), and a home-produced television show which he streams to an audience of 80. When running for office for President of the United States against Donald Trump in 2016, Joe Exotic decided it would be a brilliant idea to hand out condoms with his face on them: “Political condoms. Vote for me or you’ll need these because you’re screwed.”
The one person who near-surpasses Joe Exotic’s self-obsession is Carole Baskin, a tiger sanctuary-owner who wears a flower crown and animal-print dresses, and is, ironically, allergic to cats. An entire episode focuses on the unsolved disappearance of Carole’s multi-millionaire zoo-owning husband. In fact, Joe and his supporters claim that Carole killed and fed her husband to the big cats (“Here Kitty Kitty”). Joe cannot spare a breath to rant on camera about how much he wants his arch-nemesis Carole to stop meddling in his animal abuse; he blames her for messing up his life, and decides — after facing multiple lawsuits for impersonating her brand — that hiring a hitman to kill her is the best way forward.
The show also introduces us to yoga aficionado and wildlife park operator Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who rides his plump pet elephant around his park and on the streets. Bhagavan’s multiple apprentice girls live with him, cuddling onto tiger cubs, sleeping in horse stalls with sliding doors, and working 100-hour weeks dressed in catty uniforms. Exotic’s workers span the gambit as well: misfits with missing teeth, a hillbilly with prosthetic legs which he apparently lost from a “ziplining accident,” and a transgender man whose arm was ripped off by one of Joe’s tigers who subsequently returned to work. Sadly, the big cats remain as mere props in the background, overshadowed by the purported tiger-lovers who star in the series to show off their own claws.
Founded on a premise odder than fiction, this true crime tale is riddled with salacious twists and turns — from cults, arson, drug barons, gunshots, diss-tracks, and tiger maulings to a restaurant serving expired meat pizza — culminating in the arrest and sentencing of Joe Exotic. The big cat who made a living by putting big cats behind bars ends up behind bars.
For avid Netflix-goers, be careful not to mix up fiction and fact, showbiz and life, truth and unchecked rumors; in Tiger King, all lines are blurred. The central narrative that the show pushes must not be taken for granted by all means. Don’t get too close to the tiger cage or you’ll get snatched.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is currently available for streaming worldwide on Netflix.