Joe 'Exotic' Maldonado-Passage spins leisurely on a beaten-up desk chair, reading out a business rival's diary with glee into a camcorder. She is, he alleges, a "murderer". A philanderer too. And, worst of all, she has no real care for the exotic animals in her charge. That's what hurts the most, he says.
Thus, the stage is set for Tiger King: the Netflix's latest smash hit true crime documentary, which dives deep into the murky, little-known business of highway zoos in America's south. We meet Joe Exotic and his nemesis, self-styled conservationist Carole Baskin, alongside a slew of small town Charlemagnes and their troubling menageries of rare, deadly animals. As the seven-part series is quick to tell us, the number of privately owned tigers in the US far outweighs those in the wild. That, in itself, is wild.
It isn't just the photo ops with endangered species which makes for grim viewing. Because grimmer still is the cast of humans; tigers play second fiddle to a story of "murder, mayhem and madness", as Tiger King verbosely claims in its subtitle. That's not just lazy Netflix copywriting, either. Madness is why you turn up to work. Murder – attempted, alleged and enacted – comes with the territory.
The business of big cat keeping seems to attract a very specific sort of person. Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Dr Bhagavan "Doc" Antle – the most professional of the tiger-cuddling oddballs – aren't just hobbyists. They're extremists. Each works in their respective zoo for 365 days a year. They dress in exotic animal prints. They believe themselves to be saviours. They partake in the animal performances. And still, despite caging countless animals from tigers to bobcats to even an African bush elephant, the appetite to control remains unsatisfied.
On the surface, Exotic, Baskin and Antle are three very different people. But this is what unites them at the wicked heart of Tiger King: an intrinsic need to manipulate the lives of those around them and destroy those who don't fall in line.
On the surface, animal rights activist Baskin is the 'aw shucks' young grandmother you'd expect to see on the porch of a Floridian beach house. Resplendent in tiger prints at all times ("that's how they remember ya", she explains), the 58-year-old is a little zany, but ultimately good-hearted. This veneer never cracks. And yet Carole's devotion to 'rescuing' big cats is contradicted by a swift scene in Tiger King's first half. Legions of unpaid interns openly admit that they work for free, for years, in the hope of laddering to the next rung (a step closer to the actual tigers in her sanctuary), with only a handful receiving any form of renumeration in exchange for devotion to the cause. One worker says through an open smile that "Christmas Days don't exist." All of this, despite the millions Baskin inherited from her late husband.
The source of that wealth is even more troubling. Baskin's late husband, self-made millionaire Don Lewis, was 22 years her senior, and helped establish the Big Cat Rescue in 1992. Five years later, he went missing: who was responsible, and why, is recounted in forensic detail by a series of axe-grinding speculators. We won't spoil that here, but trust us, it wasn't exactly a chilled relationship. How not chilled? Lewis's daughter would later say to People magazine: "We were upset that the cops didn't test the DNA on the meat grinder."
Doc Antle, though given less screen time than his castmates, isn't exempt from this pattern of behaviour. The soul-patched proprietor of South Carolina's T.I.G.E.R.S (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) is a former advocate of Chinese 'mystical science', and in true shamanistic form, established what was said to be a sex cult within the confines of his zoo. He parades three wives to the cameras – his "girls", who all live in separates houses on the compound. Former employees claim that they were forced to work long hours for little pay, and Barbara Fisher, who worked on the site from 1999 to 2007, accuses Doc of a fascination with bedding virgins, so that his lovers "would be bonded to him in this way, where he felt like he could get them to do anything." Pair that with the zookeeper's propensity for buying his wards new breasts, and it's not difficult to picture the working atmosphere at T.I.G.E.R.S.
Joe Exotic, as our protagonist, is the starkest example of control-freakery. The sort of cowboy you'd find in a lone Oklahoman cabaret club, there's a made-for-TV readiness about the 57-year-old. He luxuriates in his strangeness. His winding monologues to the camera seem well-rehearsed, but largely harmless in Tiger King's opening act. Here lies just another strange American parading the oddities of the US outback.
But upon closer inspection, Exotic's entire life is antithetical to the South's ardent conservative values. Openly gay, and as one third of a threeway marriage to much younger men, the tiger breeder isn't your typical redneck (despite his propensity for blowing stuff up). Unconventional, sure, but ultimately OK. To each, their own. When his husband John Finlay however reveals a tattoo to the pubic bone – "private property of Joe Exotic" in gaudy, horned font – things take a darker turn. We soon learn that their polyamorous marriage was encouraged by Exotic alone. Two further relationships are with much younger men, from troubled backgrounds who land jobs at the zoo: Travis Maldonado, a drug addict who claims not to actually be gay; and Dillon Passage, who Exotic marries two months after Malondado shoots himself in the zoo's office (an apparent accident). Exotic is prone to grabbing their chins, forcibly pulling them in for kisses. He continually fawns over them in segments on couches, in bedrooms, at work. And their true attraction to Joe seem hazy. By his own admission, the idea of a gay relationship had to be inferred to Maldonado in a disturbing exchange given the employer-employee context: Exotic asks what pornography he likes to watch, and the size of appendages involved.
The ultimate act of control though comes not in his attempt on the life of Baskin (a woman who encroaches on his turf as monarch of the exotic realm), but in the allegations that Exotic was indeed funding the drug habits of the young men that took his fancy: a textbook form of manipulation. Later, the fact that Travis leaves his husband for a female employee is proof of his honest affection alone.
It'd be easy to reason all of this as bad people doing bad things. For Baskin and Exotic, however, Tiger King provides fleeting glimpses into the make-up of these individuals. These are bad people who have suffered bad things, too. In a particularly harrowing moment of episode three, 'The Secret', Carole reveals that she was raped at knifepoint by three men as a 14-year-old. Her conservative fundamental Christian family couldn't understand it. In their view, she must've been asking for it, she tells to the camera. Shamed, she escaped home at 15.
Exotic's misery is well-documented too. He tells of being raped as a child by an older boy. His teenage years were ones of isolation and rejection, as his family struggled to accept his sexuality, going as far to make a young Joe swear that he wouldn't attend his own father's funeral. And in the aftermath of the Aids epidemic, his first husband Brian Rhyne died of HIV complications in 2001.
These are all damaged people who enjoyed little agency or control in their younger life. Adulthood affords that once more. Cash increases its scope. And if, for any reason, control cannot be exerted, Doc, Carole and Exotic increase the blast zone of their own personal damage, destroying the lives of others in the process.
That doesn't excuse the wicked deeds of Tiger King, and our sympathy is best reserved for the victims we see. And, thankfully, there is some liberation to be enjoyed for the documentary's captives. While it remains despicable that wild animals remain caged, it is John Finlay – one of Joe's many now ex-husbands – who claims his freedom in the final episode, ceremonially covering up his tattoo as his brander is condemned to a 22-year jail sentence. The sight of a once powerful Joe Exotic, Machiavellian as he schemes away on a computer chair, dissipates with every punch of the needle. "He's a nobody now," Finlay murmurs to the inker, solemnly gazing down at the disappearing brand of his former captor. "He won't even be a memory."
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