Tiger King, the seven-part Netflix docuseries which has turned into a huge sensation in our pandemic-lockdown world, is frankly disturbing.
It has become the streaming platform’s most watched show since its debut on March 20, and its wacky characters have garnered global fame, and become fodder for hilarious memes and Tiktok videos.
Recently, a meme doing rounds on social media had Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh’s face morphed onto a photograph of the protagonist of Tiger King — the eccentric, golden-haired Joe Exotic — seated beside a big beautiful tiger. Clearly enjoying the meme, Ranveer Singh shared the picture on Instagram with laughing emojis, asking, “Who did this?”
The series keeps you riveted, at first. As one of the characters on the show declares: what is cooler, sexier and significant than a tiger? But, slowly, as the crazy exploits of the American big cat breeders start to unspool and the tigers turn into mere props, sometimes used as baits to bed girls and executed on a whim, you start to squirm and question the premise of this documentary.
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Clearly, Tiger King’s co-directors, Edwin Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, tumbled upon a perfectly engrossing subject when they tracked down a couple of private zoo owners in America who run elaborate breeding and sanctuary operations. They offer interactive, up-close experiences with these animals, charging anywhere between $300 and $600 to pet, cuddle and take selfies with furry tiger cubs.
But the documentary swerves the camera away from the plight of these beautiful felines and into the lives, actually the bedrooms, of these exotic pet breeders, and their community.
The series gets bizarre as we dive into the world of Joe Exotic aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a gun-brandishing “redneck” zoo owner from Oklahoma, who seduces two young meth addicts, one is just a 19-year-old boy, employed in his zoo and marries them. It is a threesome wedding!
The people who make their way to his zoo are misfits with nowhere else to go. Polygamous Joe is running a bitter feud with the owner of a sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue in Florida; Carole Baskin is a blond-haired, middle-aged flower-child, perpetually clad in cat-striped attire or accessories. She is spearheading a crusade against Joe Exotic for animal abuse in his zoo and using them for profit. It turns out she is suspected of allegedly murdering her millionaire husband, who is still missing. The scandalous story goes that she ran his body parts through a meat grinder (the cameras helpfully swerve to the meat grinder in question) and fed him to the tigers.
There is a meme going around on social media which says, “Wanna know who really killed Mufasa? (From the Walt Disney’s classic Lion King)”. And there’s Joe King’s thundering disclosure: “Carole f***** Baskin!”
In the most part of Tiger King, Joe storms around cursing her, blowing up rubber, life-size female dolls and planting live snakes in her mailbox. Carole, who comes across as being as tough as the tigers she houses, is not rattled and turns out to be his nemesis.
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Most text and image memes on Instagram and Twitter revolve around these two eccentric characters. What boggles the mind is that they are actually real people! But, there are others too — Bhagwan Doc Antle, an American big cat trainer, wildlife park operator and a cult leader, who is a great believer of the Indian yoga ‘Woodstock’ guru, the late Swami Satchidananda.
Doc Antle, who provides animals for Hollywood movies, keeps an AK-47 under his mattress and beds the young girls who work on his Myrtle Beach Safari. He gives them Indian names like Moksha and Rajnee. He too is surrounded by magnificent tigers, which seems to exude a magnetism that attracts the girls to him.
Explaining the lure of tigers to girls, Jeff Lowe, a shady businessman, who enters the show to bail out a financially stressed Joe Exotic, says: a “little pussy (referring to the cuddly tiger cubs) gets you lot of p*****.” The worst moment in the docuseries has to be watching tiger cubs being stuffed in a suitcase and carted off to Las Vegas to lure girls into his bed.
By this time, you realise the shenanigans of our very own controversial “Osho” Rajneesh seem tame. In fact, Wild Wild Country, another Netflix documentary set in the period when the godman moved his entire community from India to Oregon, US, is also replete with murder, biological warfare, drugs, sex, megalomania, wire-tapping, Hollywood glitz, etc. It did not, however, turn into a riotous hit. None of the characters are pop-culture icons.
Some reviewers attribute the unprecedented success of Tiger King to the quarantine, cooped up in our homes in mortal fear of a deadly virus. In any other time, it probably would have been passed off as an outlandish documentary.
The show is peopled with a legless zoo keeper with painted prosthetic limbs, a loyal worker who returns to his job seven days after his arms get ripped off by a tiger, and a famous reality TV producer Rick Kirkham with a cowboy hat, who resembles Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
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Kirkham had the insider dirt on Joe Exotic since he was living in the zoo for a year filming him for a reality show. Both fall out when Exotic burns down all his footage and Kirkham leaves the zoo, apparently brain-damaged by his time at the zoo.
Here’s the thing: all along, Kirkham knew the “evil” goings-on in the zoo with Joe Exotic randomly killing animals, but he never raised it with the authorities. After a point, Exotic allegedly killed the tigers and other animals when they were not useful to him anymore, after making nearly $100,000 from each tiger cub until they turned 16 weeks. But he also required nearly three quarter of a million dollars to feed the 200 plus tigers in his zoo.
Beyond a point, Tiger King is not just weird. It becomes ugly and surreal despite the hook hanging over the episodes: did Carole really kill her husband and does Joe Exotic manage to murder his rival?
There are other questions that emerge after watching the documentary. How America has more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild? India, where the furry feline is a native, has just 2, 927 tigers in the wild (according to PETA figures), while it is estimated that there are 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers across America.
A National Geographic article reveals tigers were first brought to the US in the early 1800s from Asia, Africa and India. Currently, it is legal to exhibit and breed exotic animals in the US. Animal rights activists who believe these roadside zoos and other tourist traps that exploit tigers are even worse than what Tiger King lets on, are vigorously campaigning to push the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which is presently in front of the Congress. This Act will ban commercial breeding, public handling and ownership of big cats as pets across the US.
The documentary also just skims over key questions on the tiger trade in the US.
In a statement, PETA reveals that a study of zoos worldwide found that big cats have 18,000 times less space in zoos than in nature. Tigers stay with their protective and nurturing mothers for up to two years, but zoos are notorious for typically tearing them away from their mothers within hours or even minutes after birth. In the documentary, Joe Exotic is seen pulling out a tiger cub from its mother in a cage even as it is born.
Tigers are not meant to be living sad empty lives in zoos, staring out of the bars of their cages with vacant eyes, says PETA. In Tiger King, it is Joe Exotic who ironically mouths these pre-scripted lines: “When animals are kept in cages, their souls die.” And this aspect supposedly hits him hard when he finds himself in jail at the end of the docuseries. He is now serving a 22-year in jail for hiring an assassin to kill Carole Baskin.
The Guardian equates watching Tiger King to pouring tequila into the brain. But also recommends watching this exploitative series since “it is the perfect show for these weird uncertain times.” To me, it is an eye-opener of a side of America where you can buy a tiger as easily as a gun. Watch it.