It’s easy to make jokes about exotic animal owner Joe Exotic. The memes have reached the surfaces of pop culture in record time, in large part due to the general public quarantining and social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. People needed something to turn their attention towards and Joe and his tigers are too hard to ignore.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
Directors: Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Streaming Date: March 20, 2020
Depending how much time you’ve spent on social media (I wouldn’t recommend checking your screen time stats while isolating, by the way), you’ve no doubt read what someone had to say about the documentary (this tweet may provide the best descriptor). Through seven episodes, viewers are taken through an Oklahoma tornado that starts with tigers and ends with a murder-for-hire conviction. In between is a trail of drugs, missing limbs, secret recordings, and a woman accused of killing her millionaire husband and feeding him to tigers.
Most documentaries or podcasts hitched to murder and mystery tend to steer the audience’s belief before dropping the other shoe in a later episode, making one question how they felt about the subject in the first place. The Serial podcast may be the best example with its first iteration around Anan Syed and the death of his ex-girlfriend. The podcast provided so much depth that the case was reopened and a subsequent documentary was released by HBO last year.
In the case of Tiger King, the people involved were varying degrees of delusional and downright despicable, and initial reactions are only further cemented by the end. Joe’s intentions initially seem pure. He opens the zoo he claims his deceased brother always wanted and even names it after him to keep his memory. But as the zoo got bigger, so did Joe’s ego. He had cameras around him constantly rolling in some kind of pre-celebrity preparation. He said what he wanted, when he wanted, often touting racist remarks and mendacious narratives only serving to appease his own cognition. He went so far as to lip-sync songs and claim them as his own, boasting that he recorded two country albums.
As with any business, there’s always a competitor. Joe’s long standing feud with Carole Baskin is what eventually landed him in jail, as the severity of his threats and stunts expanded exponentially. Joe is outlandish (he used a dummy dressed up like Carole and shot it with a gun on his web show) while Carole used her millions to slowly drain Joe’s finances through court proceedings. The sad irony perceptible to anyone is that Carole isn’t much better.
She claims she wants to rescue large cats from captivity and put them into her Big Cat Rescue sanctuary, where the conditions are supposedly better than Joe’s zoo. Joe pays his employees (albeit not much) where Carole gets her labor from “volunteers” who may spend years working their way up the color-coded ladder only to ostensibly become a higher-level volunteer. Again, it’s hard to find anyone involved to root for.
It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of Joe’s story, but it’s necessary to take every narrator’s words with a grain of salt. Joe and Carole use the platform to plead their case and attack the other. Joe’s investor is an obvious con man who is stuck in the Ed Hardy fashion phase. A guy nicknamed “Doc” runs a zoo that he uses to attract young women in a cult-like manner. Perhaps the only cat owner who didn’t feel like a giant lie was the drug dealer who may or may not have been the inspiration behind Scarface. Rest on that for a second.
Employees are interviewed throughout, mostly speaking positively about Joe and occasionally correcting a story. One worker had their arm mauled by a tiger, elected amputation rather than rehabilitation, and was back to work five days later. Joe is trusting and willing to give second chances. Many of his employees are former convicts or people formerly addicted drugs who use the job with long hours and no vacation as a deterrent, even if the pay is a tawdry $150 per week. There are clips of workers digging through donations of expired meat to take home before feeding the rest to the animals.
There is so much to unpack with this story that an event like losing an arm gets minimal attention. Other parts of it are left on the cutting room floor, untold entirely. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the roller coaster that begins with tigers and ends with prison. This series has become a representative distraction from the current pandemic and a timeline break from discouraging news.
Tiger King isn’t a feel good story and it doesn’t have a fitting ending. What is has done is given people something to talk about, to debate and discern truth from fiction, much like Serial did when it first gained attention. The absurdity of it all is what pulls viewers in, and watching everything unravel doesn’t exactly emit a notion of pity towards anyone directly involved. It’s infuriatingly entertaining and released in a time when an absurd distraction was needed.