What’s The Premise?
The story follows the rise and fall of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, an eccentric American zoo owner known as Joe Exotic. The story of Joe and his Oklahoma animal park is a glimpse into the strange, deeply interconnected world of American big cat collectors. At its heart is a bitter rivalry between Joe and fellow zoo owner Carole Baskin. Tensions between them escalate through the course of the series, spiralling into a murder-for-hire plot and an FBI sting – with polygamy, tiger attacks and the suspicious disappearance of a multi-millionaire along the way.
Who Is Joe Exotic?
In his own words, Joe Exotic is a “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet”. While Joe is certainly not likeable, he is endlessly watchable. The platinum-blond zoo owner is a larger-than-life local celebrity and very much the star of his own show – even launching an ambitious campaign to become US president in 2016. He breeds tigers by the hundreds, conducts a problematic three-way marriage with two younger men, makes violent threats on his “worldwide” big cat web show and finally becomes embroiled in a murder-for-hire conspiracy.
How Did That Happen?
Joe’s complicated relationships hold the key to his demise. His vicious feud with Carole Baskin began when she started campaigning against Joe’s use of lion and tiger cubs in shows at shopping malls. Joe sees Baskin’s protests as a threat to his zoo – and the bizarre world he has built for himself as the self-proclaimed ‘Tiger King’. He retaliates, in his own absurd style, with a revenge campaign that culminates in an expensive legal trademark case.
Despite having made a small fortune from his big cats – Joe claims a single cub can fetch as much as $100,000 from shows and photo ops – his battle with Baskin leaves him in dire financial straits. With the park facing collapse, in sweeps mysterious angel investor Jeff Lowe. But Lowe is not all he seems – and brings a host of shady characters with him. In 2018, Joe is dragged into a murky murder plot alongside Lowe’s questionable associates. As you’ll learn in the documentary’s opening scenes, the Tiger King is eventually left facing a sentence of up to 79 years behind bars.
Will You Like It?
It’s rare to find a show that’s stranger than the reality we’re currently living in. If you’re looking for some respite from that reality, Tiger King is as addictive as it is chaotic, becoming more surreal as the episodes continue. While Joe Exotic’s rollercoaster story is unquestionably wild, it’s the wider cast of cat-crazed misfits and gun-toting oddballs that make the documentary compulsive viewing.
The docuseries lifts the lid on a subculture that needs to be seen to be believed. Dedication to the ownership of big cats at these private zoos strays disturbingly into cult-like obsession. Staff work on minuscule wages – or for nothing at all – just for the privilege of tending to exotic animals. The polygamous leader of one park even gives young female zoo apprentices new names and picks out revealing animal-inspired outfits for them to wear. A staff member at another zoo actually returns to work for the sake of its reputation just days after a tiger tears off her lower arm.
What’s The Takeaway?
For individuals infatuated with keeping exotic animals, big cat owners appear more committed to community rivalries than the wellbeing of their collections. Despite all the discussion of breeding programmes, they rarely mention the conservation of big cats within their natural habitats. The show leaves you with an eye-opening comparison: while there are just 4,000 tigers still in the wild; there are around 10,000 living in captivity in the US. Beyond the jaw-dropping antics and larger-than-life characters, Tiger King’s legacy includes an uneasy feeling that what these big cat owners really want is to be crowned the kings and queens of their own jungles.
Where To Watch It…
Tiger King is available to stream now on Netflix.