BY RACHEL TESON On the off chance you haven’t heard by now, Netflix’s six-hour breakout docu-series Tiger King is a jaw-dropping white-trash shit-show that somehow combines tigers, gay rednecks, the FBI, a sex cult, a fried blonde mullet from hell, a wealthy definitely-missing and quite-possibly murdered husband, an on-camera suicide, a ridiculous run for the presidency, and it all ends, fittingly, in a 22 year murder-for-hire prison sentence. In other words, it’s must-see TV. The co-directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin played both sides of the story, allowing the viewers to get a full view of all the crazy horrendous tiger shit going on, although some fur was definitely ruffled in the process.
It begins with the main star of the show, Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic. At Joe Exotic’s private zoo, with over 1,200 exotic pets including tigers, lions and bears, he prides himself on having the largest exotic zoo in the nation. The best introduction to Joe Exotic is his reaction after one of his worker’s had gotten her arm torn off by a tiger. He goes into the gift shop, tells all the customers to leave, and then says glumly, “I will never recover financially from this.” However, running this kind of extensive zoo is not cheap. John Reinke, a long time worker for Joe Exotic and his pets, tells the interviewers that Joe gets Walmart truck in all the expired meat they can no longer sell so he can feed his animals. These poor, neglected creaturess are not only kept in small cages and forced to breed cubs to increase the money in Joe’s pocket, they are fed rotting meat. One horrifying scene in the docu-series shows 14 tigers running in circles along the gate waiting for their food, and one of the workers says off screen, “I don’t know what to do, there is only $5 worth of expired meat in there.” This does not even scratch the surface of all the terrible animal abuse on display in this documentary.
Every episode we learn about someone new who makes us want to vomit for a whole different reason. There is “Doc” Antle (Doctor of Mystical Science), owner of Myrtyle Beach Safari in North Carolina, who has several wives, all of which came to him as teenage interns and never left the property. A past worker, Barbera Fisher, fills us in on all the juicy details. Doc makes his all-female workforce dress provocatively, live on the premises, work 14 hours a day for absurdly low pay, and even bullied Fischer into getting a boob job. (“I don’t remember agreeing to the procedure . . . The appointments were made for me . . . . I was just happy because I got to sleep for three days after the surgery,” she says) Barbera also tells interviewers about the prevalent rumor that Doc shoots and kills his cats once they get too big to cuddle because full grown tigers are too expensive to feed. Since Doc’s main money comes from cub petting, this makes a lot of sense.
Then there is the infamous Jeff Lowe. I honestly can’t decide who is a bigger piece of hot smelly shit — Jeff or Doc. Jeff, a convicted felon, took over Joe Exotic’s zoo after he was bankrupted by legal fees from his endless court battles with Carole Baskin (we’ll get to her). Jeff made a lot of his money by sneaking his tiger cubs in Louis Vuitton bags into expensive Vegas hotel rooms so people can pay thousands of dollars to get their pictures with the cub. Jeff is the current owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park with his wife Lauren.
As the docuseries goes on, we get to see Joe Exotic’s even crazier side — like keeping his husband Travis captive on the site and spending $90,000 of misappropriated funds to fund his no-chance-in-hell 2016 presidential campaign and his failed 2017 Oklahoma gubernatorial campaign. He spends most of his time posting videos to social media trashing his main zoo competitor, Carole Baskin, whom he accuses of feeding her husband to the tigers in order to get millions of inheritance. In response, Carole Baskins uses her millions of dollars, social media platforms, and political connections to destroy Joe Exotic financially. Since this docu-series wrapped, the FBI has reopened the case of Carole Baskin’s mysteriously gone-missing husband. Meanwhile, Joe Exotic is currently serving 22 years for hiring a hitman to kill Carole Baskin.
Sadly, the biggest tragedies here aren’t the people, it’s the animals. The tigers at all three of the zoos featured in the docu-series — Joe Exotic’s zoo, Doc Antle’s zoo and Carole Baskin’s tiger sanctuary — are neglected medically and emotionally, and are forced to breed so the zookeepers can pimp all the cute cubs, by either illegally selling them or sneaking them into children’s parties and hotel rooms. Joshua Dial, Joe Exotic’s schlubby campaign manager and the only person whom I was a fan of, said it best, “Everybody lost in this . . . People have forgotten what is important . . . the conservation and protection of these creatures on the planet.”
The Big Cat Public Safety Act has still not been passed — which would end the collecting of big cats for personal pets and the existence of abusive roadside zoos, like the horrible zoos featured in this series. Worldwide, there are only 4,000 tigers left in the wild, while somewhere between 5,000 – 10,000 tigers are kept as pets or zoo exhibits in the U.S. This series quite literally broke my heart, and I could go on to write 20 more pages about all the horrible things included in this series. Watch the series. See how the animals are being treated. And call your local Senator to vote for the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Don’t let the criminals in this series get famous for all the wrong reasons. Although, that train has probably already left the station.