By: Gabriella Mendez
Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic have become household names within the past few weeks; with everyone binging during the quarantine, “Tiger King” has emerged as one of Netflix’s top 10 series in the United States.
Initially jumping between the perspectives of three owners of private zoos, the viewer expects nothing more than an exposé of the illegal animal trade, or perhaps an investigation of the government’s role in ignoring it. But the main appeal of the series is the lack of morality from nearly every party.
Among the initial three owners (Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle), a moral hierarchy begins to form in the viewer’s mind. Joe prides himself in employing the less fortunate, Carole in her humane treatment of her animals, and Doc on…himself. But as the producers continue to introduce more characters — and yes, they are characters — it becomes clear that there is no single “bad guy”.
There seem to be only few people with a moral backbone, most notably “Saff”, Rick Kirkham, and Joshua Dial. All once employed by Joe Exotic, they are the closest thing to a voice of reason in this entire series. They provide testimony for the unthinkable claims made, and become the only people that the viewer can really believe — despite the fact that they are too have profited off of the illegal animal trade.
As the documentary carries on, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the outlandish stories and conspiracies brought to light: did Carol Baskin kill her husband? Were Joe’s husbands really gay? Is Doc Antle’s zoo a sex cult? These questions sweep the viewer into a gossipy and taboo narrative that ultimately has nothing to do with big cats.
So much of the documentary focuses on the relationships of the zoo owners, that the lives of the animals fall into the background. The viewer completely forgets that the animals are guilty of nothing, and yet continue to be taken advantage of.
According to the New York Times, multiple interviewees had been told that the film was to be the “Blackfish” for big cats: referring to the 2013 documentary that exposed the dangerous and unethical practices of SeaWorld. The plight of the animals is only touched on in the last few moments of the series, which is admittedly upsetting.
After the premiere of the series, Netflix released a remote follow-up episode interviewing some of the key players. Erik Cowie, formerly employed by Joe Exotic, expressed his pure disdain for the now incarcerated Tiger King, saying that he was “here for the cats”. Offering even more insight into the workings of the zoos, the sequel answers a great deal of questions that the viewer may have afterwards.
Delving into the world of private zoos, “Tiger King” is more than a six-part documentary. Viewers are subjected to countless plot twists and absurd events straight out of a fever dream, but ultimately have to remember that the animals are still suffering. Regardless, the series is undeniably captivating, and should absolutely be binged in one sitting.