Eye of the Tiger
“Tiger King” is a docuseries that swept the nation during the pandemic. It was a quarantine sensation when it was released in March 2020. The seven episodes (with an eighth reunion episode done after many requests) depict the rise and fall of Joe Exotic, a man who runs a private zoo in rural Oklahoma with dozens of big cats. His flair for the dramatic and constant need for attention make him seem like a modern day P.T. Barnum. Exotic is not the most entertaining part of the show, however: it’s the rivalry between him and animal rights activist Carole Baskin. By following his story, we enter the crazy world of exotic animals and non-traditional couples.
The series, directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, is non-judgemental in every sense of the word. We focus on Exotic and his eternal feud with Baskin, a lady who’s living off her dead first husband’s millions and only wears big-cat printed clothing. Her ultimate goal is to pass the Big Cat Safety Act, a law that would make it illegal to breed big cats in captivity. Exotic and Baskin both ultimately run the same type of business by profiting off keeping animals in cages, yet they hate and seek out to destroy one another. “Tiger King” ends with Joe in prison due to animal abuse charges and a failed assassination attempt on Baskin. It’s established by the end that there is no hero. No one is here to help these animals taken out of their habitats and locked in a cage. It’s telling to watch this kind of morally questionable behavior you can really only find in the United States.
“Tiger King 2” is only five episodes, and I have watched them all. It seems like the majority of exotic animal owners in the first season refused to pick up the phone. I can’t blame them, considering that PETA ended up seizing over one hundred animals from Exotic and his business partners. They focused more on the animals in the second season than in the first, which makes sense, considering how popular these animal abusers became because of the show. The show gave PETA the footage it needed to start taking down these private zoos. I guess people didn’t want to end up in prison for three years like Joe Exotic.
Even though the documentary helped to save animals, watching “Tiger King” is morally conflicting. We are actively routing for the success of individuals who profit off keeping animals in cages. Exotic feeds off the attention of others, and by this series becoming so popular, we are actively supporting and encouraging a morally ambiguous person to remain the way he is. Same thing with Carole Baskin. She profits off of keeping animals in cages and avoiding questions about her own dead husband. After the first season was released, she refused any interviews if her first husband was even mentioned
By shining a light on these people, we give questionable animal owners celebrity status. Baskin was on “Dancing With the Stars” after the show gained traction. Joe’s business partners had enough money to open their own zoo far away from the original in Oklahoma. I don’t like seeing real people as characters, but that’s what this documentary has done. It made these business owners and tiger lovers larger than life. The show is like watching a car crash: it’s horrible, but you can’t look away.
Illustration by Dev Kamath