By Nicole Rees-Williams
Tigers, murder, cults, a gay throuple (yes throuple), expired meat, mullets and country songs. And it doesn’t end there.
Tiger King is a 7-part documentary mini-series on Netflix that follows the lives of exotic zoo owner Joe Exotic and Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin, whilst detailing their long feud. It is arguably one of the most watched series of the year so far, and it’s understandable why. Nothing could prepare you for the intense drama, scheming and cattiness of the big cat world. With the trade being something extremely unfamiliar to most, this is exactly what draws us in.
The brief overview is that Carole is an alleged ‘activist’ trying to bring down Joe’s ‘zoo’ and has succeeded in shutting down his use of tiger cubs for profits in shopping malls across the country. She aims to rehome big cats who have been bred in captivity into her ‘rehabilitation centre’, so on the surface, she’s a pretty good activist for animal cruelty.
However, there is more to Carole that you could imagine on first viewing. Her rehabilitation centre is essentially a worse version of Joe’s zoo except that she speaks calmly and wears a flower crown. The tigers live in the same or even smaller cages than Joe’s. She also makes extraordinary cash by charging visitors for tours of her centre whilst employing unpaid volunteers to keep the business flowing. Most of whom she admits she ‘doesn’t even know’ until they have volunteered there for over five years.
The instinct is to favour the charismatic Joe Exotic, but he is not so likeable either. He does pay his employees unlike Carole, and the tigers seem to have better living conditions (by better, not great. Just better than Carole’s). His downfall comes at his need to breed the tigers constantly. We watch as he tears cubs from their mothers at birth to sell or to use for his own photo opportunity profit at the zoo.
Amongst the feud between these two owners, there is much more drama packed into the seven episodes. This includes a missing person/suspected murder case, a murder for hire case, embezzlement, a presidential campaign, and an exotic animal cult run by a polygamous man with multiple wives. The series is truly stranger than fiction. It is so wild that it serves as a great distraction from the wild reality we are currently living through. The story is very fast paced with multiple dramas interweaving throughout. Some lasting the whole series, some forgotten after one episode. If you were wondering if there’s more to the story, you’re probably right. But to get the truth out of a group of people whose businesses rely on their lies is not to be expected. There is a lot of bases that are touched on but ultimately uncovered in the series, which is one of the weaknesses of the show.
Beneath the entertaining aspect of this dramatic world there is a sad reality. Amongst all the drama, there are not any truly ‘good’ characters. Everybody is using these animals for their own financial gain. Caught up in the lies, crime and drama are the lives of a highly endangered species.
Many of the scenes were difficult to watch. From cubs being taken from their mothers at birth and described as ‘that’s two grand right here,’ to the rough handling of the adults, many of whom are rumoured to be killed when they are no longer useful to the owners. One of Joe’s employees words the conclusion perfectly, saying, ‘Nobody wins. It’s the animals that suffer.’
Shocking statistics are displayed at the show’s conclusion, stating that ‘5000-10,000 tigers live in captivity in the U.S. Fewer than 4000 tigers remain in the wild.’ It really leaves you with a heavy heart. None of these exotic animal owners truly care for their cats. The tigers are used for financial gain and for power, and as much as the owners claim to care about the animals it is obvious they have no real concern of the limited number of animals in the wild, as long as they have some in their back garden.
Throughout the series we see Joe’s empire thrive and relish in its success as quickly as we see it fall and crumble. The show is a wild yet entertaining ride, but it’s also a consequentially cautionary tale. What to take from it is to be careful what you put on the internet, be careful who you get into business with, and using dangerous animals lives for your own personal gain can leave you in a bloody mess. (Seriously, episode 2, ouch.)