Sometimes the only way to deal with a uncontrollable and terrifying situation is to jump feetfirst into something else. In an attempt to manage my near paralyzing fear right now, I’ll be doing my best to blog more often. It’s a win-win: I regain a sense of control over my world, and you can be entertained for however long it takes you to get through a thousand words or so. So let’s dive in!
Tiger King came on my radar through memes. Of course Netflix had suggested it to me, but their suggestions have been wrong before. I’ve been doing a lot of comfort-watching and wasn’t sure Tiger King would be a good follow-up for Howard’s End.
At a coworker’s urging, I put Tiger King on last night intending just to see what the fuss was about. And blew through all seven episodes in the same night. Once finished with what can only be described as a ‘wild ride,’ I realized ‘Ah, so that’s why roller coasters are only like 3 minutes long. The human heart and mind can only take so much.’
In case you somehow still don’t know the premise, let me attempt to give a brief overview. Some things will be omitted in the interest of time and word count.
While convalescing in Florida from a suicide attempt, a gay Oklahoman encounters the secret world of big cat ownership, becomes obsessed, attempts to open a big cat rescue but sort of gets sidetracked by showmanship and money, seduces an ostensibly straight redneck and convinces him to join his merry band of ex-con meth-head zookeepers, turns his exotic animal rescue into both vocation and identity while breathtakingly missing the point of ‘animal conservation,’ charges people 600 dollars a head for photo-ops and playtime sessions with tiger cubs, attempts to launch a country-music career incorporating tigers and sort of conservationist themes into his songs, pops up on the radar of an actual conservationist who runs her own big cat sanctuary in Tampa and reports him but has a shady past which may or may not involve feeding her missing millionaire husband to tigers and also charges people to visit her animals but doesn’t pay her keepers who are all volunteers.
That was episode one. And believe me friends, it just went from there.
On a personal note: although Joe Exotic (the aforementioned gay Oklahoman tiger zoo owner) began his career in the late nineties, I remember going to a mall in the late eighties with my folks and seeing one of the kind of depressing exotic animal exhibits mentioned in the series. It was in the atrium of the Cross County Mall, the same mall at which movie theater I would work in high school, and the cages were small folding ones with medium size cats. I think the biggest thing they had was a young leopard. I’m sure the practice was outlawed after that, as I never saw that mini-zoo again.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not vegan or a member of PETA, but I believe very strongly in animal conservation and welfare. I accept zoos ONLY if they are large and allow animals room and actively encourage enrichment and are active in conservation efforts, but hate when they have shows.
As mentioned in the series, Joe became fascinated with big cats while visiting the owner of Lion Country Safari, an attraction that – drumroll – was only about 15 miles away from my old house in West Palm Beach.
Lion Country was in the news every few years for a keeper being mauled or something like that. I went many times during my childhood – it’s very different from Joe’s crapshack roadside zoo, and had acres of open land for animals to roam. Visitors drive slowly through the paddocks and the animals are free to wander up and visit the cars, but you aren’t allowed in if your windows are open or don’t go up (no convertibles or motorcycles), and if you open your window or get out you will be ejected. Fast. The only time my Georgia uncle came to visit us, he went to Lion Country and some lion cubs tore the cloth tire cover off his spare and the keepers had to get it back, which meant waiting until they were done playing with it. Camels spat on his windshield, which was why the camels had a chainlink fence to keep them back from the cars after that. Back in my day the lions were free to come up to the cars, and would occasionally pee on them (MEMORABLE), but now the lions are kept behind a chainlink divider because fools would get out of their cars. Fools ruin everything.
I’ll be honest – if you love animals, the show is a hard watch. In the very opening the director runs across a guy with a snow leopard in his van, WITHOUT THE AC ON, and my heart broke. I burst into tears five minutes in. The camera crew for the BBC’s Planet Earth series spent months, MONTHS in tents hoping for enough glimpses of snow leopards to put together footage for the show. AS THE NAME IMPLIES they live in mountainous, S N O W Y regions and this jagoff had one in the back of his van, in Florida, with no AC, IN THE SUMMERTIME. “Oh yeah you can acclimate them to it” the ambulatory bag of shit says, as if he knows anything. There were many difficult, difficult scenes after that.
But the show makes good TV. Is it full of crazy people all trying very hard to outdo each other even while living their best, meth-addled and leopard-printed life? Oh my lord yes. But are nearly all of these people possibly attention-addicted sociopaths with little to no consideration for what harm they were doing to their harems households or loved ones, AND various species? PROBABLY! I think the person who cared the most for her animals is Carole. And I think Joe started out with good intentions, as is shown at the end, but fell victim to his own sense of grandiosity and addictions, to say nothing of the expenses required for keeping such large animals.
A lot of memes are giving Carole shit for “doing the same thing Joe did.” They are wrong. Carole operated a rescue for animals taken from shitty circuses and homes unequipped to meet their needs, and that were most likely bred in captivity. They can never, ever return to the wild because they’ve never been there. They wouldn’t survive. The best case scenario is the animal goes to a facility that will meet its health and safety requirements and give it some semblance of peace until it dies of natural causes. They usually can’t go to zoos because of behavioral problems, or the other residents don’t like them. I do disagree with Carole’s methods for keeping the animals – they don’t seem to have enough space to really run around and the contraption where they put their heads in the cage for water and food was just weird and looked unsafe for everyone involved. there are animal sanctuaries who don’t make spectacles of their charges and are doing very, very good work, but many are privately owned and hard to find.
The fabulous Patrick Sponaugle tweeted that he didn’t imagine there would be many heroes in the show. That’s both true and not. The heroes are the people who never lost sight of what they were doing. Consider Cowie, an ex-con who found Joe’s job listing for a zookeeper on Craigslist and considered interacting with the cats to be the best thing he’d ever done “Have you ever walked a lion?” he asks even as he mourns the cats Joe neglected or killed. Keeper Saff , who L O S T an A R M to a tiger but came back out of fear of bad publicity for the zoo, was another unsung hero. The army of volunteers willing to put in years of service for a chance to help care for big cats. That federal prosecutor with the amazing hair.
Even though it was a roller coaster of dysfunction, I admit that I enjoyed the series. I found value in learning about the Baskins’ attempts to pass legislation against owning big cats. If there will never be an outright ban, then there need to be PARAMETERS for heaven’s sake! A minimum square footage enclosure, a baseline for the enclosure’s construction, stress testing, some kind of proof of income or financial stability to show the person can afford to feed the animal AND get it medical care. Contingency plans in case of an escape. Showing that one is a responsible adult who won’t make dumbass decisions like KEEPING A TIGER IN AN APARTMENT. Go read that link, it’s a great one!
In closing though, I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about the victims. They’re only mentioned a few times before the show falls down into a rabbithole of redneckery. Joe preyed on Travis – Travis might have been a legal adult but he was still in many ways a child. There was a chorus of outrage, real and humorous, about Carole’s missing husband but barely anything about Travis or the new piece Joe married two months after Travis killed himself.
Watching such a thing certainly distracted me from the global pandemic, but I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off watching a virtual museum tour instead.