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‘Tiger King’: sensational or Shakespearean?

and | Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Theresa Tulsiak | The Observer

‘Tiger King’ sensationalizes eccentricities, overlooks abuses

By Sara Schlecht, Scene Writer

I didn’t watch “Tiger King” because I wanted to. In fact, it was quite the opposite. A friend Twitter-pressured me into watching, knowing I would hate the show but wanting me to suffer through it because many of its ridiculous events occurred in my home state. Fifty likes later, I had no choice but to dive into the docuseries.

Less than two minutes in, a shot of my county jail appeared onscreen, making me deeply uncomfortable. This discomfort never went away. Not when I was presented with cult leaders who draw people in with the promise of work with exotic animals — and in some cases, drugs, sex and firearms. Certainly not when egregious animal cruelty occurred as a normal part of work in private zoos. While the series at first seems interested in exposing these atrocities, it quickly devolves into gratuitous depictions of people who are narcissistic, naïve and out of touch with reality.

Much of the imagery appears to be beyond the directors’ control. No one can stop Carole Baskin — whose primary goal is to protect big cats — from wearing an outfit composed entirely of tiger prints. She does it to make herself memorable. No one can force an interviewee to put on a shirt or sit up straight as he talks about his years with Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King.” Except the directors, instead of seeking to pierce these veneers of eccentricity and explore some of the serious abuses being perpetrated, seem satisfied with this surface-level entertainment. The camera lampoons its subjects, showing them at their most obsessive and downright bizarre. Its critical gaze spares no one, and careful cuts make it clear that the story the directors want to tell isn’t always the same one their subjects do.

The series’ use of photos and pre-recorded material seems intended to remind viewers how bizarre its main subjects really are. Clips of Joe Exotic’s music videos are used gratuitously; once you’ve seen a mulleted man accessorize his Roman collar with a cowboy hat, you can’t get rid of the image. The same goes for the show’s repeated use of a low-quality shot of Exotic in jail. These images do nothing to advance the narrative, yet they appear over and over, preventing any in-depth exploration of the bigger issues at play.

Many of the people working in the private zoos depicted in the series are exploited, working seven days a week for minimal pay, some living on-site under awful conditions. They work for people who profit from the lack of regulation of exotic and endangered animal ownership in the United States. The animals are sometimes fed poorly and treated cruelly, as they are only cared for well enough to attract visitors — thus making a profit for their owners. Carole Baskin speaks of her big cat sanctuary as existing to protect the animals rather than to profit from them, but much of the footage of people visiting the cats in cages suggests otherwise.

A news reporter interviewed in the series put it best, comparing the story of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and the plethora of ethically questionable figures involved with big cats in the United States to a train wreck. It’s hard to look away. The directors clearly knew this as they interacted with these eccentric people. Or perhaps they couldn’t look away long enough to fully recognize (or develop) the other stories they introduced but didn’t quite capture. In some ways, I guess this apparent tunnel vision makes sense: emphasizing Joe Exotic’s guilty verdict in a murder-for-hire plot is much more salacious than unpacking his violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Joe Exotic: king of infinite jest, tigers

By Gina Twardosz, Scene Writer

Since the nationwide shutdown, many have longed for something to keep them occupied during these uncertain times, and Netflix had the answer: “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” 

The seven episode docuseries is a wild, true to life account of the business of exotic animals. But reality television has a way of mythologizing its main characters, presenting them as quasi-fictionalized agents of chaos. “Tiger King” is more of a Shakespearian tragedy than it is anything else, so please join me on this surprising literary odyssey as I break down all the twists and turns that befall this unbelievable true story. 

There are nine basic elements of every Shakespearian tragedy: a tragic hero, a struggle between good and evil, a fatal flaw, tragic waste of the good, external conflict, internal conflict, catharsis, supernatural elements, lack of poetic justice and comic relief — “Tiger King” has all of these and more.

Joe Exotic seems to be the tragic hero of “Tiger King” (but bear in mind, most of the characters in “Tiger King” are at least criminals, if not outright villains). Joe Exotic is actually Joseph Maldonado, the former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, the place which becomes the focal point of “Tiger King.” 

Joe Exotic certainly sees himself as the godlike protagonist of his own story. He built an empire based on his own presumptions of himself, while always pushing for more: more tigers, ligers and bears (oh my!), more (straight) husbands and more fame and acclaim. Joe Exotic even tries to make a run for the presidency.

His persona has taken over his personhood, and he presents himself as the person who you, the viewer, want to see. Even though he has accrued more than a few enemies, he still manages to be his own worst enemy. 

The struggle between good and evil is the clash between protagonist and antagonist: Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, owner of an endangered tiger sanctuary in Florida. Baskin is Joe Exotic’s antagonist, not because she is necessarily evil, but because she causes the most conflict in the story that is Joe Exotic’s life. 

Baskin keeps her tigers out in large pens and facilitates almost no interaction between patrons and tigers, while Joe Exotic’s tiger zoo is almost the opposite; dozens of tigers are kept in the same pens, and Joe Exotic exclusively breeds these tigers and lets zoo patrons interact with tiger cubs, either by petting them or taking selfies with them. 

Internal conflict for Joe Exotic lies in his misguided belief that by breeding the endangered tigers, he is helping the species— which he loves— survive. Baskin argues that captive breeding can be dangerous for both the animals and the breeders.

The external conflict should be obvious from the first episode of “Tiger King,” as Carole Baskin will stop at nothing in order to get Joe Exotic’s zoo shut down. She posts online about the horrors of his practices and sics her fans on his zoo. Baskin also works on a higher level by regularly lobbying for the U.S. government to impose harsher restrictions on the ownership of exotic animals. 

Partly supernatural, full of comedic relief, “Tiger King” does not disappoint with wildly unbelievable subplots. The biggest of these is the rumor that Carole Baskin killed her billionaire husband and fed him to her tigers. Baskin’s husband, an exotic animal breeder who started her collection of exotic cats, mysteriously disappeared while on a trip to South America. 

While not entirely supernatural, I’m sure that if this was a Shakespearian tragedy, the ghost of Carole Baskin’s husband would be haunting her right now. 

Another weird element in “Tiger King” is the character Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle, who has trained animals for Hollywood films and runs a large, theme park-like animal reserve in South Carolina. Doc Antle is also, essentially, a cult leader. 

The majority of Doc Antle’s employees are young women that he encourages to dress sexily and have sex with him. He also has several wives who are all animal trainers and has the power of celebrity on his side, handling animals for megastars like Britney Spears

Thus follows: the tragic waste of good. Sadly, many involved in the epic battle between Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Doc Antle find themselves worse off than before. The docuseries interviews one woman who escaped Doc Antle’s cult, and she laments her time spent there while implying that Doc Antle kills the baby tiger cubs which can longer be played with by zoo visitors. 

Another sad tale involves Joe Exotic’s second husband, Travis, who, while high, shot himself with what he thought was an unloaded revolver. All of Joe Exotic’s husbands were teens when they met him, and got addicted to drugs because of him. In one of the more gruesome moments of “Tiger King,” one of Joe Exotic’s employees, Saff, gets his arm ripped off by a tiger, and returns to work the next day, with his arm amputated, so the zoo will not get shut down. 

These side characters are a welcome reprieve from the toxicity of Joe Exotic and crew. They provide a certain catharsis for the audience, and remind us that we’re not the only ones who are privy to the insanity on which this docuseries feasts.

Finally, all this eventually leads to “Tiger King’s” stellar conclusion, where Joe Exotic tries to have Carole Baskin killed. He fails and is sentenced to 22 years in prison. Really, it was Joe Exotic’s fatal flaw of hubris that landed him in prison. Once Joe Exotic set out on his path to destroying Carole Baskin’s life, his fate became inevitable. His story may have begun with happiness and good fortune, but for almost everyone involved, it ended in misery.

These seven episodes of“Tiger King” are messily extraordinary, but they lack poetic justice. Who wins in the end? Many of the characters in the series have had their lives ruined, and by the end of the series, the welfare of exotic animals seems to be of no concern to anyone in their epic battles of power over one another.

Maybe it’s the audience who wins the jackpot of entertainment — although, does anyone who watches “Tiger King” really feel any better about the state of the world? 

Life may imitate art, but sometimes the truth can be stranger than fiction.

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About Sara Schlecht

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

Contact Gina