‘Tiger King’ is jaw-dropping but doesn’t highlight the issues of exotic animal captivity

Media Credit: Photo Illustration by Camille Desanto | Staff Photographer

"Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" is a seven-part docuseries depicting the life and drama of former zookeeper Joe Exotic.

Let’s face it: You’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t seen the memes, TikTok videos and other social media talk about Joe Exotic.

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is a seven-episode Netflix docuseries that captured everyone’s attention as the COVID-19 pandemic tasked millions with finding a new binge-worthy TV series. The humorous, yet terrifying, show centers around the exotic cat industry in the United States.

The show follows former zoo owner Joe Maldonado-Passage “Exotic”: the “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” as he chiefly describes himself in the show. His outlandish and profit-motivated tiger breeding techniques put him at odds with animal rights advocate and wild cat sanctuary owner Carole Baskin, who Exotic attempted to kill in a murder-for-hire scheme. He is currently serving 22 years in federal prison.

Perhaps that is why the docuseries is so problematic. “Tiger King” is incredibly entertaining and definitely worth the binge. But the series drowns out any focus on animal welfare and conservation efforts, and ethical dilemmas make it more of a reality television series than one of Netflix’s top-tier docuseries.

The eccentric, raunchy and explicit personas of Exotic and others bring the series to life. Anything is fair game in “Tiger King”: cults, polygamy, sex, drugs, mobsters, guns, suicide, arson, country music videos, a presidential campaign – you name it. It was truly impossible not to binge this show. There is an uncanny urge to find out how much crazier each episode can get.

But this is where the docuseries fails – there is no central theme to “Tiger King.” I wasn’t sure whether this is a docuseries attempting to shame the exotic cat industry in the United States or an unorganized exposé on Joe Exotic. I also didn’t know whether it was trying to solve a murder mystery or highlight manipulative, abusive relationships and cult-like followings.

Rather than allowing the situations to naturally play out, the film crew constantly surrounded Exotic and gave him an excuse to act crazier. Like a reality TV show where producers can manipulate the subjects into certain scenarios, to me, it felt that directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin milked the subjects dry for more and more chaos. The directors had been filming since 2014 after all, which only flared Exotic’s flamboyance for the camera.

The filmmakers also focused too much on the “WTF” moments of the subjects rather than highlighting the ethical atrocities of Exotic’s tiger breeding. The social media memes we see are mostly referencing or making fun of Exotic’s volatile persona; meanwhile, there is no conversation about the magnitude of tiger breeding in the United States. There are currently more tigers privately owned in the United States than there are existing in the wild.

The filmmakers also helped Exotic become the “good guy” of the show by priming the audience to antagonize Baskin. An entire episode is dedicated to the disappearance of Baskin’s former husband, which insinuates that Baskin killed her husband for money and fed his body to their tigers. Throughout the episode, Exotic points a finger at Baskin and talks about his theory that she killed her husband, but the directors never include information that might discredit his claim.

Again, the episode made the show incredibly more interesting, but my issue is that the directors ultimately portray Exotic and Baskin as equally evil. Sure, the producers did a great job convincing everyone that Baskin killed her husband, but it is important to remember that this is all theory and there is actually no evidence that supports any of the rumors against her. Even though Exotic is more of an immoral figure, Baskin suddenly becomes the most hated subject in the show, making Exotic the quasi-protagonist of “Tiger King.”

You could almost say the filmmakers helped Exotic achieve his ambitions of fame and recognition. The COVID-19 pandemic surely helped the popularity of the show, but Goode and Chaiklin provided the medium for Joe Exotic to become a household name, all while making the public hate his No. 1 enemy. Helping a manipulative, dangerous man reach his goals is not an ethically-sound aim for documentary filmmakers.

The series was too rushed. To me, it seemed that two small documentaries – that of the wild tiger industry and Baskin’s questionable past – were overshadowed by Exotic’s biography. There was an opportunity for greatness, but the plans fell through by adding too many complex and jaw-dropping elements to the series.

I would still encourage people to watch “Tiger King,” as long as they view it with a critical eye. The series is anything but boring, and it has become a staple of American society during the coronavirus crisis.

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