By Michael Bellia ’21 and Steven Jones ’21
(Please Note: This article contains spoilers!)
In the midst of a quarantine that has kept millions of Americans stuck in their homes, it has become harder and harder to find ways to stay occupied. Netflix’s new hit documentary series, Tiger King, has been among the few major beneficiaries of our collective boredom. Released on March 20, the timing could not have been any better for Netflix, a company facing an onslaught of competition from other media companies releasing content on their own streaming platforms. With a subtitle promising “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” the show offers viewers an extraordinary look into the bizarre, competitive, and deadly big cat industry.
The series immediately raises questions about the underground industry of large-cat breeding and possession by shining the spotlight on the sad fact that more tigers are currently held in cages than live in the wild. Viewers are introduced to Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, who goes by the moniker “Joe Exotic.” A very flamboyant and self-described “gun-toting redneck” with a blonde mullet, Joe operates one of the largest private zoos in the country, housing hundreds of tigers and other big cats.
The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park was founded in rural Oklahoma in memory of Joe’s younger brother, Garold Wayne, who died in a tragic car accident. Quickly, the zoo began to attract visitors from all across the United States and even gave hope to former felons who found a place that would hire them. While the series is centered mostly around Joe, it also features two other big cat owners named Doc Antle and Carole Baskin.
The show’s madness is perhaps best exemplified by the relationship between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Carole runs a big cat sanctuary in Tampa, Florida that claims to rescue cats and provide them with exceptional care. What Carole conceals, however, is her engagement in the business of profiting off of tours of the sanctuary as well as breeding animals. She leverages her expansive social media following to attempt to push Joe and other breeders out of business, but Joe fights back against her attempts and seems to be obsessed with criticizing her. He is at the forefront of a conspiracy that strongly implies to viewers that Carole murdered her wealthy husband, Don Lewis, and he didn’t actually disappear as she and several law-enforcement authorities have claimed. This dispute sparks a fierce rivalry between Joe and Carole that encompasses much of the show’s plot.
Surprisingly, not only is Joe Exotic a zoo owner, but he is also a country music singer, performing songs with titles like “I Saw a Tiger” and “Here Kitty Kitty,” a tune which details the alleged feeding of the late Don Lewis to tigers. While Joe Exotic as a character is certainly amusing and unpredictable in his response to Carole’s backlash, his wild personality detours his attention away from the zoo. As the show moves into its fourth episode, Joe Exotic’s hopes to become a reality TV personality are discussed. His aspirations don’t stop there, however. In 2016, he hoped to parlay his success and wealth into politics by running for president of the United States as a Libertarian candidate.
Joe’s family sticks with him and supports him until the death of his partner, Travis, who commits suicide. The death affects Joe deeply, worsening conditions both at the zoo and in his personal life. The zoo begins to face increased financial pressure after a series of lawsuits from both animal rights activists and Carole, as well as a devastating fire on the property and an injury suffered by an employee. Eventually, an investor comes forward to help Joe recover, but the already seemingly crazy persona of Joe Exotic rapidly becomes even more uneven, as the fifth episode ends with the striking revelation that the FBI has launched a probe into both him and his operation of the zoo.
Earlier in the series, recordings of Joe being interviewed at county jail are played. We learn in the penultimate episode that Joe’s former handyman, Allen Glover, testified that he was paid $3,000 to kill Carole on behalf of Joe Exotic in a murder-for-hire scheme. A series of text messages couple with Joe’s previously revealed evil intentions towards the activist to land him in jail on a 22-year sentence, in addition to punishment to charges he faces for the destruction and alteration of federal documents and the killing of five of his cats (which violated the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act). The show’s director wonderfully details the progression of Joe Exotic as a character, depicting the transition from a cat-loving, outgoing Southerner to a sinister, unpredictable criminal.
In the final episode of the show, Joe explains the course of events from his point of view, claiming that he never had any actual intent to kill Carole and that he never asked anyone to carry out the crime for him. The show never gives the audience a definitive answer as to whose claims are valid; it is left for the audience to decide who they believe to be more credible.
Joe Exotic finds a unique place in the hearts of many people as they struggle to determine whether or not they should sympathize with him. Certainly, people have found a place in their hearts for the show itself, which boasts incredible ratings and has brought questions about animal abuse into the national conversation.
The show received so much attention that President Donald Trump was asked by a reporter at a coronavirus task force briefing if he would consider a pardon for Joe Exotic, to which he replied that he would review and consider it.
With the constant search for activities with which we can occupy ourselves during an era in which it seems most are unavailable, so many people have found pleasure in the riveting plot and unique characters featured in Tiger King.