Everyone who has Netflix (and some people who don’t) has been using the recent global pandemic to watch Tiger King, subtitled “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.” It is a seven part limited series that chronicles the seedy world of exotic animal zoos throughout the United States, a world that is both horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Squeamish watchers beware, there is blood, animal decapitation, and raw meat on screen. This documentary has all of the true crime hotspots- rich people, poor people, rappers, possible murder, hitmen, politics, embezzlement, YouTube, and exotic animals. It’s no wonder that it has become an overnight success, currently number one in the US. However, many viewers seem to believe disturbing and, frankly, insane allegations made by the eponymous “Tiger King,” even making the “freeJoeExotic” hashtag viral on twitter globally. Here’s a rundown of why Tiger King has been sensationalized, turning Joe Exotic from the dreadful man he truly is, into a cultural phenom.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Joe and his contemporary Doc Antle both had their own sort of cults. Joe’s workers were fiercely loyal, while Doc Antle’s were forbidden from having any sort of life outside of his zoo. In one particularly horrifying and vulnerable interview, a former acolyte of Antle’s says that she was coerced into receiving breast augmentation surgery, and agreed because she knew she would get a few days of rest afterwards for recovery. Employees of both men received around a hundred dollars a week, working seven days a week, up to fourteen hours a day. One of Joe’s employees is wounded, to the point of hospitalization, and some of Joe’s first words are “This is going to ruin me financially.” Meanwhile, when the employee is given the choice between a longer recovery saving her hand, and an amputation, she choses amputation, saying that if she has to stop work, it’s more ammunition for the animal rights people. She is back at the zoo in a little over a week. Joe offers his employees amenities, including first pick from the “meat truck” a Walmart truck full of expired meat that is then fed to the animals.
And then, there’s their personal lives. Joe has three husbands at different times, and is polyamorous. Antle also has multiple relationships, all with women. Both men conduct these relationships with younger people who work for them. At one point, Antle points out one of his girlfriends, and says she started working for him when she was seventeen. Joe’s husbands John and Travis were both nineteen when he met them, and at one point, both addicted to Meth, which Joe provided for them. Neither apparently self-identified as gay, and Travis apparently claimed to not be allowed to leave the zoo, or get a job outside of it. John left Joe for a woman, and Travis killed himself in 2017. Joe remarried, two months later. There is nothing inherently wrong with polyamory, when it is practiced with love, respect, and communication. Unfortunately, Tiger King only shows instances of intimate-partner abuse, which is a sad fact of many relationships, gay, straight, polyamorous or monogamous.
Joe Exotic claims to love his tigers and the other animals that populate his zoo, but he abuses them, much like his employees. He feeds them poor quality food, keeps them in large groups in small enclosures, and separates cubs from their mothers at birth. These cubs are kept in baby playpens. Employees used a rod to drag a newborn tiger cub for twenty feet, out of the enclosure where its mother was in labor. The cubs are taken around the country on a bus, to different malls, where they are farmed out for petting and photos. I don’t know why this is unclear to people, but this isn’t right. Big cats aren’t domestic cats- they don’t like to be held, they will attack humans, and it can be fatal. (The first two can also be true of house cats, but the point stands.) These are wild animals, and exploiting them for photos is wrong.
Not only did Joe exploit his animals, he also shot them. The remains of some tigers were discovered on zoo property, and Joe freely admitted to “euthanizing” them. Shooting an animal is not the humane way to kill it, if it was that sick, and Joe’s employees say that shoddy veterinary care was par for the course at his zoo.
The Joe Show
Joe Exotic is a very confident man. One might say that he is overly so- he at one point says, “They don’t come to see the tigers, they come to see me.” Joe loves attention, he loves the spotlight. The souvenir shop at the zoo is full of his memorabilia, he’s obsessed with getting famous. At the funeral of his husband Travis, he speaks inappropriately, and then sings some of his self-produced music. Joe is the textbook narcissist, as is Doc Antle. They both want to be the center of attention, the star of the show, and they want it badly enough to cause a lot of harm.While Joe is in prison, Antle is still riding through his park on his elephant.
Embezzling & Attempted Murder
Joe Exotic ran for president in 2016, and then for governor of Oklahoma in 2017. He was unsuccessful in both attempts, but did manage to garner some support in his gubernatorial race. Joe funded both of these campaigns by stealing money from the zoo, then under the name of Jeff Lowe, an investor. This is glossed over by a lot of fans, who don’t seem to care that Joe was stealing, because Jeff Lowe is a highly unpleasant person, to put it lightly.
Fans also seem to think that Lowe and an accomplice framed Joe for contracting a hitman to kill his longtime rival, Carole Baskin. This theory makes a little sense, if you buy into the logic that Joe is too stupid to do such a thing. Joe publicly threatened Carole and mocked her for years, and seems to be pretty unhinged, so is it a stretch that he would hire someone to kill an enemy? Fans believe Lowe framed Joe so he could steal Joe’s zoo, but the zoo was already in Lowe’s name. If the zoo was already his, what does Jeff Lowe have to gain by framing Joe? Granted, Lowe is a slimy character, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to frame someone for contract killing when you could just bring up charges of embezzlement. #freeJoeExotic and #TeamJoe show many viewers who believe Joe to be innocent, or simply want him released. Some fans are even calling on Kim Kardashian to take up Joe’s case. Cardi B is one of the biggest celebrities to throw her weight behind the disgraced former zookeeper.
Zoo Vs. Sanctuary
A good bit of the documentary covers the work of Carole Baskin, and her husband Howard. They are a nice, slightly insane couple who operate Big Cat Rescue. Carole is cast by Joe as a villain, someone who wants to corner the big cat market by having zoos around the country shut down. Carole herself is an animal rights activist, and, as far as is shown in the documentary, seems to treat her animals well. Cats have large enclosures, not small cages, and are not touched except for veterinary care. They live their whole lives in safety, and the relative freedom afforded by the space. Big Cat Rescue does not release cats back into the wild, as animals born and bred in captivity do not easily adapt to life in the wild, and frequently cannot survive on their own. They do not buy cats, sell them, or breed them, which is a huge distinction from the zoos- a lot of the profit made by these zoos is by showing the cats, but selling big cats can net thousands of dollars per animal. The documentary made little effort to contrast the approach of the nonprofit rescue with the commercial zoos, the latter of which are inhumane and inhuman. Again, Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit, meaning that it does not make money. They may pay salaries to some staff, but Carole makes it clear that most of their staff are volunteers, and she does not take part in the exploitative, profitable petting and breeding.
Instead of covering the difference between the establishments, the documentary spent one whole episode covering Carole Baskin’s “Big secret.” Here are the facts: Don Lewis, Carole Baskin’s husband at the time, disappeared in 1997. There was no evidence, and almost no clues. Lewis has not been found, and he was declared legally dead in 2002.
Now, the conjecture. In cases like these, the spouse is the first suspect. Carole was unhappy in her marriage, which throws further suspicion on her. Lewis’ first wife and his daughters hated Carole and claim that she cut them out of his estate. (This statement is clearly belied by their opulent surroundings and nice jewelry.) Others also suspected Carole- Don’s lawyer, and his executive assistant. However, these people all have something to gain by Carole being removed as the main beneficiary to the estate. No other evidence supporting Carole murdering her husband exists. The popular rumor is that Carole fed her husband to the tigers, which is a baseless accusation. However, many fans of the documentary have latched on to the idea.
By all accounts, Don Lewis was not a nice person. He married his first wife when she was fourteen and he seventeen, which is just scary young. He was a self-made millionaire, and serial philanderer. His first wife appears in the documentary to blame Carole for the dissolution of their marriage, despite the fact that she also says that he had been cheating on her for years. It is also revealed that Lewis had a girlfriend in Costa Rica at the time of his disappearance. It is unlikely that the truth will be found so many years, though the police have not closed the case.
Joe and others who dislike Carole make further unsubstantiated claims against her throughout the documentary, and the camera usually cuts to Carole debunking the rumors or just looking a little put out. The conspiracy theories are numerous, and it’s surprising that they get so much air time given how little evidence there is of any of these claims.
While viewers of the documentary seem to divide themselves into teams, favoring either Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin, the ones who deserve our support are the tigers. Despite the end of the documentary enumerating how few tigers there are in the wild, and how many are suffering in captivity a lot of people seem to be missing the point.
The tigers, and the people exploited, are the real victims here. Sadly, it seems like in all of the controversy, the ones still losing are the cats.