There are moments from the new Netflix true crime docuseries, Tiger King, that seem almost scripted in their sheer outlandishness.
A zoo owner-turned-animal rights activist is suspected of having fed her multi-millionaire husband’s corpse to their big cats. A former drug lord believed to be the inspiration for Al Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, in Scarface, says he only got into the narcotics business to support his passion for exotic animals. Another owner of a wildlife ‘preserve’ is believed to keep a ‘harem’ of his female employees — controlling how they dress, live and work. And then there’s Joe Exotic — the “Tiger King” himself — whose ownership of a park housing 200+ big cats is merely one among a series of outre things about him.
Joe set up and ran the GW (his younger brother’s initials) Exotic Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, from 1999 up until around 2017, when he lost control of the property, and was convicted of conspiring to murder a woman — an influential big cats rights activist called Carole Baskin.
That story has been told before, of course. Last year, The Daily Beast published a lengthy investigative report that laid out all the twists and turns of the Joe Exotic-Carole Baskin feud, that escalated into a murder plot (and involved at least one surreal music video). It also examined how Joseph Schreibvogel became Joe Exotic — an Oklahoma man who attempted suicide when his father disowned him for being gay, wangled money out of his parents (who received a settlement after their younger son’s death in a road accident) to set up a zoo, lost his longtime partner to an illness, married two men more than 20 years his junior and controlled them (possibly by keeping them supplied with drugs, guns and other gifts), tried out for a career in politics (running both for President, and governor of Oklahoma), and got embroiled with Jeff Lowe — a shady business partner who he ceded ownership of the park to. The report briefly laid out the problem of “roadside zoos” in America, and the abuse that animals face there.
Tiger King follows not only the Joe-Carole rivalry but also sets up the exotic animals ownership ecosystem. There’s “Bhagavan” Doc Antle, whose Myrtle Beach Safari is run very much like a cult: a former employee states in the docuseries that Antle picked out new names for all the women who worked for him, told them what to eat and wear, paid them a negligible wage in exchange for 15-16 hours of work a day, and also made a chosen few his “wives”. There’s Mario Tabraue, the aforementioned muse for Tony Montana. There are several others who have passing appearances, and Carole and Joe. All of these characters know each other by dint of being part of the same ecosystem. Tying all of their narratives together is a fact underscored at various points in this docuseries: There are more tigers in American backyards today than in the wild elsewhere.
In watching Tiger King, you are struck by how unsavoury nearly all of these individuals are. A very obvious example of this is Jeff Lowe, the dodgy business partner who took over Joe’s park. However, even the “good guys” don’t have clean hands. The story of Carole feeding her husband to their tigers and lions may not be true, but she does seem to have wrested control of his millions to the detriment of his first wife and children. While she may be all about giving big cats a sanctuary, she also has hordes of ticketed visitors and uses free voluntary labour for the upkeep of the park and animals.
As for Joe, Tiger King poses a few open-ended questions, not least about his culpability in planning Carole’s murder. Was he a victim of his own brash persona and manipulated by Jeff Lowe, or do we have here a criminal mastermind? With regards to his relationships with his husbands — John Findlay and Travis Maldonado, both of whom were 19 when they first met him (at different times) — it is clear that Joe was keeping them dependent on him, especially by supplying them with drugs. Tiger King doesn’t straight out call Joe’s behaviour towards the young men as abusive (preferring to let other people’s testimonies do the talking), but it is an instance of where its storytelling could have benefitted from greater clarity. (The other areas where a sharper focus might have helped: Joe Exotic’s animal rights abuses, the timeline of events leading to his conviction.) Perhaps this was only my individual perception, but by the end of Tiger King, (partly as a result of the softer focus on his misdeeds and partly because everyone else is such a d*****bag) Joe Exotic cut an almost sympathetic figure.
Integral to this tale are the big cats, and broad concerns about their fates are woven into this docuseries. Time and again, their exploitation by their human owners — to whom these animals represent a fat paycheque and a chance to show off some machismo — is highlighted. It isn’t too much of a stretch to see similarities in how the people who control these animals also extend the same control over the humans around them: as Joe did with John and Travis, as Doc Antle did with his female employees. As one of the interviewees — Joe’s employee at the GW Zoo, Kelci Saffry — notes, “Nobody wins. Everyone involved in this is a so-called animal advocate. Not a single animal benefited from this war [between Joe and Carole].”
Indeed Saffry and her erstwhile colleagues at the GW Zoo — Erik Cowie and John Heinke — are among the few individuals who really seem to care about the animals, in Tiger Joe. They provide something of a moral counterweight to all the bleak specimens of humanity the docuseries otherwise throws up.
Even knowing most of the bizarre twists and turns of the Joe Exotic case, the Tiger King docuseries feels revelatory. Quite apart from its stranger-than-fiction true story, it has an unexpected poignancy at the end that is hard to shake off. It may be aeons apart in style and tone (and quality) from William Blake’s 1794 ode to the tyger, but as Joe Exotic’s lip-synced song plays at the conclusion of Tiger King, the lyrics transcend their childish literality and intended propaganda to become something sublime:
“Cause I saw a tiger, now I understand
I saw a tiger, and the tiger saw man.”
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is now streaming on Netflix.
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Updated Date: Mar 30, 2020 10:29:10 IST