It all started when director Eric Goode saw a tiger in a cage in the back of someone’s truck. From that point forward, he decided to explore the bizarre carnival sideshow that is the exotic cat community. The people he meets unveil a twisted web of polygamy, coercion, cult-like devotion, animal abuse, alleged murder and a rivalry that culminates in an attempted hit and a resulting two-decade prison sentence.
The key figure in this freak show is Joe Exotic, a big cat collector who made hilariously bad albums, ran for President and was arrested for hiring a hitman to kill his rival. That rival is Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who is alleged to have murdered her second husband and looks like what a fandom mom who dedicates her time to creating flower crown edits would probably look like.
The documentary itself strays from the exotic cat community and becomes a character study of Exotic, Baskin and other “colorful characters” such as Doc Antle, a man who grooms numerous young, naive and virginal women to be part of his harem. The documentary exposes the traumatic narcissism of those involved in ways that is both hilarious and terrifying.
Nowadays, documentaries are equally about being as entertaining as they are informative, but some lean more towards the former than the latter. With Tiger King, I feel as though they cared more about being provocative than they did about conveying the real story from a neutral perspective.
These people are so bizarre that they make the characters from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia seem like functioning members of society. It would be so easy to view their antics as simply mindless entertainment to help us cope with a global pandemic—but the reality is that they are not just “colorful characters,” as previously described. They are either evil people exploiting and abusing both their employees and animals, or they are victims of manipulation who feel as though they are broken to the point of no return.
I also take issue with the production of this documentary. The director cut several scenes that exposed Joe Exotic’s racism, including his justification for white people using racial slurs. The director also refused to show footage that revealed the extent of the animal abuse occurring at Exotic’s zoo. Saff, a survivor of being mauled by a tiger, is a transgender man who was misgendered throughout the documentary despite being open about his identity in real-life.
Decisions like that only further harm the credibility of the docuseries. If I am so disgusted by the refusal to hold a confirmed animal abuser accountable that I would gladly watch PeTA’s planned rebuttal, that is how badly they screwed up.
A lot of the focus is on Carole Baskin’s alleged involvement with her second husband’s disappearance. While I do not claim to know whether or not she did it, I want to call attention to how hypocritical people are being in their indictment of her.
We do not even know if she killed her husband. Just because she had potential incentive to do so is not equal to a conviction. Meanwhile, Joe Exotic and Doc Antle openly admit to calling their posse of loyal worshippers “[their] own little [cults].” Women who were previously involved with Antle described the extent of his sexual coercion and predatory behavior. The two men Exotic “married” were not only substantially younger than him, but they were straight men he coerced into a polyamorous relationship in exchange for drugs. If you are going to burn Carole at the stake over allegations that have yet to be formally investigated, you better have that same energy in condemning Exotic and Antle for their admitted abuse of power.
I would not necessarily say Tiger King has no substance whatsoever. It is ultimately a character study of people like Exotic and Baskin, but in some ways, it also offers insight as to why people within exotic animal communities strive for relevance to the point of indecency.
Baskin does not truly care about animal welfare. She only cared about what she could gain from it. Exotic started his zoo to honor his brother, but he became so wrapped up in the fame and notoriety that he lost sight of why he built his empire to start with. Associates like Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe then took their statuses within Exotic’s trusted group to lure in and groom young women. All of this is essentially a darker take on the cost of fame.
Tiger King is also a horrifying look at modern-day cults. When we think of cult leaders, we think of people like Charles Manson and Jim Jones, men who were as terrifying as they appeared. However, just like how an abusive relationship does not start out abusive, a cult leader does not begin as one. The trauma of cult abuse is no different from other types of abuse in that it is a slow-acting poison that ultimately renders victims unable to function without their abusers. Men like Exotic and Antle use their charm and unconventional appeal to lure in curious, unsuspecting people—and that is how they are ultimately pigeonholed into unwavering loyalty.
Like any other true crime media spectacle, Tiger King raises an important question: to what extent do we end up glorifying people like Joe Exotic?
I fully believe those who view Exotic as a meme or a hilarious icon of redneck America would be disgusted by online communities’ glorification of people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or the Columbine shooters. Joe Exotic does not seem as terrifying as the aforementioned individuals were, but that only adds to the chilling nature of his impact on the collective unconscious of others. Like cult leaders such as Manson or Jones, Exotic started out as just a quirky man with a dream before becoming a true nightmare of a person.
Enjoy laughing at Tiger King as much as you want. I am not one to tell you what to be entertained by, especially when entertainment and escapism are seemingly all we have right now. But eventually, we will have to leave the comfort of our safe spaces, and when we do, we need to start a dialogue about people like Exotic—and how to never again let them gain the notoriety that shields them from the consequences of evil.