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Joe Exotic poses with a tiger. Image provided via Netflix (2020).

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Big Cats and Deception: The Unraveling World of Netflix’s “Tiger King”

The media-service provider Netflix has wholly outdone itself with its release of “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” Since its release, the absurd docuseries has taken America by storm, prompting its domination as the leading stream on Netflix for several days. For plenty of viewers, the show has been a shocking distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many on the Internet have continuously pondered on the material of the show, itching for theories and insight on the world of its central constituents. On its surface, the series seems to be nothing more than sensational television as it follows the scandalous world of roadside zoos and animal-rights activists. Frankly, it is much more than its gritty, revolting cover grounds, as the docuseries unearths a chilling realm of hypocrisy on either side of the years-long animal welfare battle. 

Primarily intended to expose the disturbing cruelty of roadside zoos, the docuseries turned into a circus of its breed with its main features being the eccentric Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, the former owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary. Although seemingly a fight between the good, the bad, and the ugly, “Tiger King” insinuates that Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are essentially the same, as well as the people who work around them. Whereas Baskin and her supporters criticize exotic’s big cat mania, she too capitalizes off of the confinement of big cats. She entices the public to come and interact with the view and awe over the animals.  

Neither Exotic nor Baskin seem to have wanted this outcome, though. Both seem to have had the initial intent of establishing a place for benevolent big cat raising, though they have painstakingly missed the mark in their attempt. Although without ignorance to their faults, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the directors of the Netflix series, never fail to shine a light on the compelling and emotional sides of Exotic and Baskin, in which they show how tender their love is, or was, for the animals whose rights they have neglected. As expressed by Goode, his passion for the docuseries was with the exposure of “big cat ownership in America and where that exploitation lies.” Even though they remained somewhat on the path of this, the directors did not avoid showing that even the cunning and deceitful are still human, for whatever that may mean. 

A significant component to these big cat chains centers surrounds their cult-like manner, with owners such as Exotic or Bhagavan Antle, also known as Doc Antle, the proprietor of Myrtle Beach Safari, brainwashing their youthful employees in the process of running their big cat arenas. As shown in the docuseries, Exotic and Antle engaged in polygamy for years, with a tendency to find younger men or women as companions. Exotic’s polygamist venture is perhaps the most tragic, with one of his husbands, Travis Maldonado, who was featured heavily in the docuseries, pulling the trigger on himself while inside of the park’s gift shop in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Antle disapproved of the parallels between him and Exotic and found the docuseries to be “salacious” in its portrayal of him as a cult leader, stating that he was a single man who simply had a few girlfriends.

In addition to the polygamy portrayed in the show, the general employees were treated poorly and were hardly paid anything for their extensive hours and intensive labor. “Tiger King” showed that Exotic’s employees were paid only $150 a week for their time and labor and were often fed with the same expired store products used as food for his animals. Baskin often hid under the guise of “volunteerism,” prompting her employees to work at her sanctuary for free. 

The blustering capacity the docuseries captured did not end with the sordid work conditions or cultish nature of the parks. It also highlights the theories surrounding Baskin’s former husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. According to Baskin, the theories that would indict her as the cause of his disappearance are the most fallacious, saying several times in the series that she had nothing to do with his disappearance. There were hardly any individuals in the docuseries who denied that they believed that Baskin was somehow involved with his disappearance, but there was no resolution in the missing person’s case. Due to the overwhelming success of Tiger King, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced that he would reopen the case concerning Don Lewis. Along with Antle, and, again, unsurprisingly, Baskin has announced her disapproval of the series, saying, “[the directors] did not care about the truth.” 

Image via Netflix.

Above all, the docuseries provided the general public with insight on what occurs in these roadside zoos, which, even in a modern light, have paralleled the controversial and outdated private zoos in the 19th century elevated by men such as P.T. Barnum. The reason why “Tiger King” itself is so captivating, though, is that it hardly truly touches on the animals, but the animalistic nature of the people who are mistreating them. In the final episode ‘Dethroned,’ Saff, a former staff member at G.W. Zoo, attests to the fact that everyone considered themselves to be an “animal advocate,” even though the animals seemed to be caught in the crossfire of human drama. Exotic, the acclaimed ‘Tiger King,’ now sits in federal prison after being convicted for two counts of murder-for-hire against Baskin and for murdering five tigers. Although no one else landed in jail, a few more are caught in ongoing legal battles, some of which existed prior to their interactions with Exotic. “Tiger King” is a tale of deception, selfishness, and incongruous benevolence on behalf of everyone involved. From the series, it is with immense hope that people will recognize the harm in emptying their pockets for proclaimed animal activists, especially those who consciously know that they are fighting for a lost cause, yet perpetually allow others to get caught in their whirlwind of a disaster.

Featured Image via Netflix.

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Sade is an eighteen-year-old residing in a small town in Georgia who is in love with everything the world has to offer.

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