Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! All three of these big animals and more can be found in the Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. Currently, Tiger King gives me life in the midst of the stress and quarantining of the global pandemic, and it could not have arrived at a better time.
From a storytelling perspective, this is either a work of genius or a complete mess or both. This documentary provides unexpected twists and turns while trying to tell a simple story of a feud between two big cat owners. Or maybe it’s about the exploitation of exotic animals. Or maybe it’s about how an individual like Joe Exotic can go from helping animals to hiring a hitman in just a few short years. Perhaps it’s about how pride goes before a fall. Or maybe it’s about justice, or mental health in America, or the value of dental care. Pick an issue or theme or human condition, it’s probably in this documentary.
I think the point is that there are big cats and other exotic animals held in captivity in the United States, which is dangerous and inhumane. As the documentary starts, there is no Federal legislation restricting ownership of exotic animals. There’s a whole subculture of people who own and breed and sell exotic animals for profit, and there are private zoos located around the country that allow people to “pay to play” with tiger cubs and other baby exotic animals.
This message gets lost pretty quickly with a cast of characters that is better than any fiction. In the first episode, one of these individuals said, “The animal rights people want the lions’ share and don’t want to share their lions.” There was a complete lack of irony. This documentary has everything, including murder accusations, a rich husband who disappeared and was possibly fed to a tiger, a suicide pact, magic shows, accidental death, a stolen diary, polyamory, embezzling, animal prints, alleged boob jobs, unexpected alliances, gurus, over-enunciation and under-enunciation, an inflatable doll, leather fringe, cursing, missing limbs, meth mouth, Walmart meat trucks, online marketing, death threats, actual ligers, and more.
The main character of the documentary is Joe Exotic (aka Joe Schreibvogel), the founder and owner of GW Zoo, who says that should the government try to take action against his zoo, they would, “have a little Waco on their hands.” This egomaniac is the self-appointed “Tiger King,” and is among the many exotic animal owners from around the United States who are also interviewed in this documentary. To be fair, Doc Antle – founder and director of the Myrtle Beach Safari, South Carolina, a doctor of mystical science, and the husband of three wives – has renamed himself Bhagavan, which means “lord.” And Joe Exotic calls Doc Antle his mentor, so…potato potahto.
The other main character is Carole Baskin, the founder and owner of Big Cat Rescue who is ironically allergic to cats and wears head-to-toe cat prints, even to visit Congress to fight for legislation to protect big cats. She and Joe Exotic, who has a platinum blond mullet, shiny blouses, tight Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, are in a feud throughout the documentary.
Is one of them the “good guy” and is one the “bad guy”? Maybe. That’s one of the enduring questions that makes this documentary impossible to resist. As Carole was brought on the scene with her holier-than-thou attitude and army of volunteers, I knew that it was a matter of time before her poop proved to stink. And I was not disappointed.
I cannot blame the producers or director of this documentary for the rabbit trails they followed. They started out by investigating some kind of illegal snake ring and stumbled on this group of characters that offered them a story – no, multiple stories – that they could not resist.
Reactions to this limited series are as dramatic as the documentary itself. Viewers either love it or hate it; there is no in-between. Even after as little as five minutes, people are in or out.
I encourage everyone to give this at least the first full episode before making a final decision. While it won’t cure Covid-19, this documentary definitely cures the Quarantine Blues.