We only just got through McMillions, a bonkers true crime docuseries about large-scale fraud featuring a cast of Real Characters, when here comes Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness with a classic “hold my beer” moment. Do you think McMillions is the craziest true crime story you’ve heard? That’s only because you have not yet seen Tiger King, which is like McMillions on cocaine. Tiger King is so f-cking bonkers, it never stops delivering “wait, WHAT?!” moments. This story has everything: a cast of characters so colorful they’re almost self-parody, Florida, arson, fraud, a mysterious disappearance, hitmen, self-produced music videos, and actual lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my.
Airing on Netflix, Tiger King tells the story of Joe Exotic (real name Joe Schreibvogel Maldonado-Passage), owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma—I, too, was amazed he’s not from Florida—and general eccentric known for failed attempts to run for president in 2016 and governor of Oklahoma in 2018. Fans of true crime should recognize the name, because his story is easily the most insane current true crime case. Over seven episodes, Tiger King does a great job laying out the story of Joe Exotic, beginning with his zoo, which housed nearly a hundred tigers, plus a menagerie of other big cats, wolves, bears, reptiles, and various monkeys.
If you don’t have an opinion on private zoos going into Tiger King, it will not leave you with a favorable impression—everyone we meet in this story is a scumbag, they’re all f-cking hypocrites, and no one is considering the well-being of their animals first and foremost. Tiger King can, at times, be a little tough to watch because the animals are clearly not living their best animal lives, and though we don’t see anything graphic, there are allegations of tiger cubs being euthanized when they’re too big to play with, and at one point several alligators die in a fire.
Joe Exotic is the focus of Tiger King, but through him we meet a cast of shady characters that includes “Doc” Antle, a well-known animal trainer and another private zoo owner, and Carole Baskin, owner of the “rescue” facility Big Cat Rescue. I will give Carole this credit: she is less exploitative of her animals than anyone else. But Tiger King does a great job of highlighting the similarities between all these private zoo people, and one big thing they have in common is basically functioning on slave labor.
Joe Exotic pays his people $100 a week to work exhausting hours seven days a week, plus they can live in rat-infested, rundown trailers on his property, and have first pick off the “Walmart truck” that delivers expired meat for the tigers to consume. Doc Antle seems to be running some kind of cult, recruiting beautiful young women to train as animal handlers, many of whom he also sleeps with and/or marries (no one interviewed agrees on how many wives he has). And Carole runs her park with the help of an elaborate scheme of volunteers—the other zoo owners admire her ability to get by without paying her help anything at all. Carole is the animal rights crusader, and she at least realizes tigers are not pets and wants to end private exotic animal ownership.
The first couple episodes of Tiger King pass by in a haze of disbelief as we meet one lunatic after another, but episode three is a giant record scratch when we find out that one of Carole’s husbands, Don Lewis, mysteriously vanished twenty years ago, and everyone thinks Carole fed him to a tiger. We could use an entire separate documentary on Don Lewis, but really this thread highlights the latent misogyny Carole faces in the big cat world. She is the only woman we meet in this circle of private wildlife owners, and she faces an incredible amount of vitriol and hatred. But all these dudes treat women like accessories, much the way they treat their tigers. I wish Tiger King drew a stronger line between Carole’s position as a powerful woman in their world and the way these men treat her—there are plenty of men who run big cat rescues and don’t end up the target of a murder-for-hire plot. They don’t hate her just because she’s on the opposite side of a political divide, but that’s as far as Tiger King pushes that line of inquiry.
But the revelation about Carole’s past is not the only record scratch in Tiger King. Joe Exotic is certainly a fascinating person, he’s an openly gay man in Oklahoma with two husbands—neither of whom are actually gay. Again, Tiger King doesn’t really go far enough in examining Joe’s relationships with his husbands, both of whom were young when Joe met them. Joe’s relationships are painted as more sad than predatory, but he definitely preyed on these men, which ended tragically in one case. This is a trend in recent true crime documentaries, to find the wildest angle possible and then leave out anything too uncomfortable so as not to detract from the “fun” of the story. Tiger King points out that most of these zoo owners have predatory sexual relationships, but it’s presented in the same way as their mutual love of guns. It’s like, “They’re all in morally questionable relationships AND they love guns! Crazy!”
The point of Tiger King is to lay out the world of big cat ownership and explain how Joe Exotic landed in jail for trying to have Carole Baskin killed. The fact that these zoo owners are also weird Svengalis is a quirk of that story, but it is something that deserves more than just a cursory glance, just as the series could have gone deeper into the misogyny aimed at Carole. Overall, it is a very good series, but the sheer insanity of the story often overwhelms the very serious issues involved. This is not guilt-free true crime—animals are exploited, people are exploited in a number of ways, and people and animals do get hurt. Tiger King brushes up against some of the very worst things about humanity without really connecting it all back to the selfish, vain impulse to own a big cat. These people are wildly entertaining, but they’re also awful. By the end, I was rooting for pretty much everyone to be eaten by a tiger.