A bizarre true crime story you have to see to believe, Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem & Madness is a messy and captivating portrait of obsession gone terribly wrong. Directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, it is gregarious and self indulgent and makes you wonder - did she really feed her husband to a tiger?!
The hinterlands of the American continent have been taken over by a predator on the prowl, one that is as dangerous as it is stupefying and as foreign as it is hidden in plain sight - a bizarre and inexplicable obsession with big cats. Be it tigers, lions, panthers, ‘ligers’ or even a ‘Ti-Liger,’ it will consume them all! Fuelled by strange people and their even stranger fantasies, abetted by non-existent or lax laws and the curious eyes of unwitting consumers willing to pay anything, it has resulted in the USA becoming home to the largest number of tigers in the world, going way beyond those found in the wild, their new habitats ranging from sanctuaries to private zoos, from roadside shows to personal homes.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem & Madness, the latest Netflix documentary series which pretty much broke the internet last week, focuses on the life of one Joseph Maldonado Passage a.k.a “Joe Exotic,” a former country musician turned zookeeper, gun enthusiast, megalomaniac and big cat fanatic who runs the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma and boasts of owning the largest number of cats in the entire United States of America. The series focuses on the life and crimes of the man, who is accused of hiring a hitman, paying him $3000 to kill Florida based big cat conservationist and lobbyist Carole Baskin, who he considers his rival. Between close up shots of the magnificent animals, Joe Exotic’s own antics and the doggedly eccentric personalities that colour each episode, the seven part limited series deep dives into the USA’s weird and mysterious, tight-knit, gossip-ridden, borderline incestuous world of big cat collectors and conservationists.
At the start, when Joe is introduced, he’s portrayed as a flamboyant personality: a mullet sporting, flashy wardrobe-owning, gun toting big cat owner who is at loggerheads with Carole Baskin for a variety of reasons, including his (highly illegal) tiger breeding and trading side business to the ‘cub petting’ shows he charges visitors hundred of dollars for. His love for his exotic anima pets however appears to be true. You see him feeding, training and playing with his tigers as if they were domesticated puppies and he approaches them with an open heart, one he evidently wears at the very tip of his sleeve. What seems like a local rivalry gone wrong however, soon spirals. The Tiger King has many rivals and as you binge episode after episode, the plot turns from a zoo into a complete madhouse, replete with unbridled hypocrisy, vicious and unrestrained.
Indeed, there is a whole lot to wrap your heads around: Big cats being aphrodisiacs who inspire a fervent, almost cultish devotion towards them. Joe Exotic is married to not one, but two men. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, animal trainer and self-proclaimed polygamous cult leader, and the shady Jeff Lowe who brags about using big cats as ‘pick up lines’ and ‘come ons’ to find partners for threesomes with his wife. Yes. This is only the beginning of how intricately weird it gets. There is also Joe’s desire to create a media kingdom with ridiculous DIY home videos and his foray into politics, where he attempts a libertarian bid for the position of Governor of Oklahoma, without having any idea of what being libertarian actually means. The only voice of reason in all this seems to be Carole Baskin, whose organisation Big Cat Rescue makes efforts to stop illegal big cat keeping in the States. She does this using the sizeable fortune her husband has left her after his mysterious death; a death so mysterious that it has since inspired some of the best memes of 2020 yet.
Big cat owners are natural showmen and such oddballs that Tiger King genuinely feels like a fictional set up come to life. They are all vamping for the camera and come across as people who document their days extensively and meticulously, enamoured by video, happy to soak up the Big-Boss like fame (read: infamy) it brings with glee - 7 episodes aren’t quite sufficient to fathom it all! And yet, this is exactly where the documentary disappoints. Sensationalist in its treatment of the bizarrely charismatic people at its centre, it loses sight of what is at the heart of the film - our relationship with nature and the animals themselves. By focusing on the feuds within the community and conveniently sidelining the cruelty inflicted on these magnificent creatures in roadside zoos, it becomes as opportunistic as the illegal animal traders it depicts, by washing over the fate of thousands of predatory animals being held in captivity illegally, for show and for profit, with the infamous antics of their owners.
There is a strange comfort in watching this bizarre set of events unfold on screen from the isolated confines of your home. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly hit a nerve and to get away from the real world pandemic, people are indulging in one where there appear to be no rules and certainly, no laws. In a tumultuous time like this, Tiger King provides a welcome distraction. But it is ironic that a series about people brazenly indulging their narcissism can inspire a sense of community. It isn’t quite comfort TV, that is not why people are lapping it up (pun intended). It creates a sense of being together in a moment of collective self-deprecation. It is a reminder that in the now crumbling world outside the four walls of our homes, the one we are responsible for creating, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.