Being a review of the Netflix special, Tiger King: Murder, Madness, and Mayhem

As is usual in my reviews, I won’t have any photos, because it’s a headache.

Okay, maybe just the one, because how could I resist something that insane? Source: Vanity Fair

This week, under Netflix’s recent “Tabloid Television” offerings, I started watching Tiger King. Despite the misleading title (no, it is not about a legendary 9th century Sumatran Tiger who unites all of Tigger-dom under a single, unified tiger dynasty), I liked it. Full disclosure: I have not finished watching it, and I have almost no idea what it’s about, because the plot and characters keep shifting and changing.

Diligant readers may recall my review of Love is Blind, which is an awful show that elevates horrible people. This is slightly different, in that it’s not about elevating awful people — it’s a side-show attraction that serves as a cautionary tale about what happens when trailer trash gets too much money (yes; I used that word, because, several of the main characters are shown with cocaine in a trailer park, with tigers and shotguns, and if that isn’t some Pensacola, Deliverance-style behavior, I don’t know what is). Further warning; I will only attempt to summarize select portions, because it’s all way too insane to keep track of. Suffice it to say that it’s about a genuinely insane man’s further descent into madness, culminating in a 20-year prison sentence for murder-for-hire, animal abuse, and violating the Endangered Species Act.

As the grueling plague months march on and we desperately ration our toilet paper (yes, Costco was doing that the other day)(everything we warned about communism has occurred during capitalism), one’s mind might search for entertainment options that are a little outside our preferred genre. We might finally read Moby Dick. We might get around to finishing Northern Exposure (hint: it’s not worth watching after the sixth season). We might take an online Art History course. Or we might watch Tiger King, which, I feel safe in saying, is easily the very modern American version of these things. Certainly, it’s a worthier use of your newfound free-time than reading the truly hateful Catcher in the Rye, but to each their own.

We all have a friend who has an exotic pet. Some of us have a friend with several wild animals in cages (after seeing this show, yes, that is how I feel about wildlife in homes — you’re not saving them or providing a safe shelter, you’re keeping them). Michael Jackson owned a tiger and a chimpanzee. Shaq has several tigers, as did Tony Montana (the alleged inspiration for that character is in this series, because this is a film version of a Carl Hiaasen novel). Most of us never stop to ask, “Where do these folks get their animals from? And what is the appeal of a creature that’s inherently unpredictable, and could take a limb off at any moment?”

To answer these questions that no one had, enter the very weird, quasi-legal world of big cat breeders and suppliers. It’s worth noting that registered, accredited zoological parks are forbidden from selling or trading animals (they have to give them to other parks). Aquariums can trade fish, but only with other reputable aquariums.

So, let’s say you have more money than sense and want a grizzly bear. Good news; depending on the state you live in, you might actually be able to do that (one of this series’ more-ludicrous aspects is framing animal ownership in the exact same rhetoric that the NRA uses to justify owning nuclear weapons — “It’s my right as an American to own lethal weapons that just happen to be furry!”). Bad news: in order to get one, you would have to wade through “the big cat breeders” (who, we’re warned by various breeders of other exotic pets, are a special kind of terrifying). A further disclosure: There are undoubtedly aspects and details behind this series that I’m leaving out, a little research might shed light on — No. No, no, no. This is not The Lobster or The Room, which require further contemplation and research to get the pay-off; it shows a man in an utterly ridiculous shirt (yeah, that shirt at the top of the page is not the most-garish ensemble in that man’s wardrobe), wearing a revolver, and playing with enormous wild animals in the first fifteen minutes. You’re either in or out at that point, and, if you are in, Yr Correspondent advises you not to do too much research, because things get mind-bendingly crazy very quickly. Anyway, let’s say you win a mega-millions lotto and, first thing you wish to purchase after a beach house and sports car is a leopard. Who do you see about getting one? Based on this series, I’d recommend reaching out to a local, mid-level cocaine distributor, because they’d have the connections (the illegal wildlife industry is the fourth-largest illegal industry in the world; so, a guy who can get you a kilo that’s 90% pure can probably find you a chimpanzee). I’m sure I’ll get all sorts of corrective letters about the relative moral superiority of drug smugglers to butterfly smugglers (it’s a thing, look it up), which also nicely encapsulates a large part of the appeal of this series: There are many scenes of morally questionable people calling truly despicable people bad names.

Anyway, let’s say you wanted a lynx, because housecats are entirely too clingy and loving. There are actually semi-legal breeders of wild animals throughout the US (unlike those dastardly Commies in the EU who don’t trust their citizens to own over 200 lions and tigers in a backyard)(there’s going to be a really condescending, “Good God, what is with all these in-bred illiterates with guns, drugs, and terrifying animals” vibe about this piece because the series is about crazy trailer-park denizens with guns, drugs, and two dozen ligers in the backyard)(Again, either you’re in or you’re out), most of which actually have the term “private zoo” in the title. You could give them a call, and they will sell you a panther (I do not know if financing is available; I’d watch a show called Repo Men: Wildlife). By the time you get a few dozen panthers, you have a serious problem, because it costs, according to the documentary, $10K a head per annum to feed them. So, after a certain point, you’e almost financially obligated to start selling and breeding them to feed the others. The most sensible solution, of course, would be to look into getting a horse or a golden retriever, but this series is all about amazingly bad decisions and really weird personal feuds.

The primary focus of the series is on a man named Joe Exotic (born Schreibvogel), a man who is so comfortable with is sexuality he wears shirts like that in public. He was also married (simultaneously) to two straight-ish men; loves guns (a lot), and owned over 200 tigers. None of that is made up (although the series might have exaggerated it), and you might want to catch your breath and ponder what might be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. Also, prior to this series, I’d never seen anyone “wielding” a gun; I’ve seen them “handled,” “aimed,” or “fired” in other portrayals. Joe, on the other hand, always has a revolver on his hip, usually another in his hand, and he’s always pointing it at someone or something. There is a scene in this series of him being attacked by his tigers, as he wails, waves his gun around, verbally threatens the tigers (even though I know from experience that most animals seem to have a limited vocabulary, “Get away from me, you bitch, or I’ll shoot you in the eye!” seems a bit of a stretch for human-animal communications), and screams for help. I will admit that I saw some amazing things going through cancer treatment and when I worked as an EMT; I have absolutely no experience that would prepare me for a deranged lunatic firing a pistol randomly whilst being mauled by tigers. The clear, obvious theme of this series — and I have to give it points for just leaning into the madness — is “slow motion train-wreck.”

Joe is easily one of the weirdest, most-contemptible people I’ve ever heard of, but he’s not even in the top 3 most-insane people in this series. There is one person, Doc Antle, who also breeds wild animals, has multiple relationships, and, it is insinuated, operates a cult-like operation (at a certain point, you do leave any sense of morality behind because it gets exhausting just keeping up with all of these characters’ vices and quasi-criminality). Joe’s main competitor (and focus of his murder-for-hire charges) is a woman named Carole Baskin who married a multimillionaire when she was 17, and whose husband disappeared under, shall we delicately say, “mysterious circumstances” (before we start feeling sorry for anyone in this series, every single person on-screen, at any point, in any way, has some sort of shady past and multiple allegations associated with them — the husband was an abusive philanderer who sounds like a smuggler who just started a big cat rescue operation to launder his money)(but I’m definitely reading a lot into the interviews surrounding him). She declared him (the husband) legally deceased one day after she legally could do so, and walked away with a few million dollars. And there’s the former drug king-pin-turned-private-zoo-owner in Miami who supposedly inspired the Tony Montana character in Scarface. I’ll admit that there’s a certain self-selecting dysfunctionality in the statement, “I’d like a pet that costs more to maintain than a Ferrari, but can rip my face off any minute;” but this series does seem to focus on the further-out-there characters. And you will have to embrace a sense of voyeurism to get into this series. If you can do that, though; it is a bizarre and entertaining spectacle.

And, if you take nothing else away from this essay, please keep in mind that Joe Exotic produces “music” videos, and, I might be guilty of understatement, but these videos may be the pinnacle of human achievement:

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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