Tiger King is the newest smash sensation to hit the Netflix streaming platform that has been graded with a rare 100% from Rotten Tomatoes. Tiger King is the story of the exotic pet industry, private zoos, and the eccentric people who run this controversial trade. Exotic pets are rare or unusual animals that are held in captivity for human amusement, most notably in this story would be big cats like tigers and lions but many of these zoos have everything from chimps, bears, and even elephants. It follows the biggest exotic pet collectors in the United States Mahamayavi Bhagavan AKA “Doc” Antle, Carole Baskin, and Joe Maldonado-Passage AKA Joe Exotic AKA The Tiger King. I described the show to a friend who hasn’t seen it as “trash TV meets true crime documentary on drugs surrounded by tigers.” The show’s main protagonist is Joe Exotic who was the owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood Oklahoma, he is the head trainer and face of the business. Most of the past footage for the documentary is from his reality show of course titled JoeExoticTV which is the catalyst for his on going blood feud with Carole Baskin who owns a rival park in Tampa Bay, Florida. This bitter and petty quarrel is the over arching storyline for the show that climaxes when Joe allegedly hires an assassin to kill Carole. This all starts with Joe trying to piggy back off of Carole’s online success by using similar names to her website to attract more clicks and views to his park on the national level. This continues to escalate through out the series. What makes this show great isn’t just that it’s a true crime doc it’s all of the side characters and their odd personal lives that leave much mystery open for discussion.
“Doc” Antle, a self described “Doctor of Mystical Science” leads what seems to be a private exotic animal zoo on the surface but underneath is a polygamist cult where he may be manipulating his power to groom young women into becoming one of his many wives. That is one of the biggest questions of this documentary, how dark and how deep does this go when the camera is off? Ex employee of Doc is Barbara Fisher or “Bala” is surprisingly one of the more important people in the docuseries because she gives her account of working for Antle for eight years (1999 to 2007). Barbara let Antle dictate everything about her from her hair, her diet, and even her name as she was forced to change it legally to “Bala Crockett.” He even forced her to get breast implants, this was to the extent where the appointments were made for her before she even agreed to the procedure. She openly states that if you slept with Doc, the faster you would move up and the better your situation at the park would be. This is a storyline that has been repeated by men in power too many times. One of the saddest parts is that Doc is revered in the exotic animal world as one of the founders and mentors to many of the trainers across the country.
One of his most famous pupils and associates was none other than Joe Exotic who himself was in a polygamist relationship with two men at the same time. I like the term throuple. As the story unravels you realize that behind the scenes at Wynnewood park is dark culture of substance abuse that is derailing Joe’s personal life from the inside out. He enters a paranoid state in which he makes the horrible decision to antagonize Carole Baskin’s during their ongoing legal feud over copyright infringement. Joe uses his reality TV show to push the narrative that Carole murdered her husband years ago to inherit their wild animal park and his enormous fortune. Her husband disappeared without a trace and much of the evidence points to her knowing more than she disclosed to police and the public. Though there may not be enough of a case to prosecute her for murder, she by most standards acted in poor taste after his disappearance in changing his will and leaving little to her ex husbands surviving family. This is a well disputed subject amongst fans of the show, “did Carole kill her husband?” One camp thinks that her husband could be in Costa Rica hiding out and living a separate life in peace. The other thinks that Carole murdered her husband in cold blood pointing to the long list of complaints with local police and the idea that she easily could have hid the body on her 40-acre property. Not to mention a couple hundred tigers that could dispose of a body rather quickly. I tend to lean on the side where she killed her husband simply for the fact that it makes for a better story and sensationalizes the docuseries as a whole.
Joe’s harassment and disregard for commonsense copyright law puts him right in between Carol’s powerful crosshairs. Her plan was to punish Joe by drowning him in legal fee’s in an attempt to bankrupt his park. This coupled with the accidental suicide of his third husband Travis Maldonado sends Joe’s life into a spiral. He is forced to try many different loopholes that Carole continues to torpedo. Joe’s final move is to sell is sell his private zoo Las Vegas hotshot Jeff Lowe. Jeff Lowe is a career con-artist who flashes sports cars his missed payments on and a lifestyle that he himself can not keep up with. When Lowe comes into the story, everything begins to becomes blurred because he does make improvements to the park and brings his own team but his motives seem convoluted. At this same time Joe Exotic begins his campaign for president of the United States which fails then the Governor of Oklahoma. This gives Jeff Lowe free reign over the park and his cronies take over. All the while they are both in a continued blood feud with Carole Baskins that is about come to a halt with a court case that Joe ultimately loses in summary judgment. This is when Joe allegedly hires one of Jeff Lowes cronies to go to Florida and kill Carole, the hit never takes place. I said allegedly because its hard to tell if Joe Exotic is set up by Jeff Lowe in a power grab or Joe actually sent the henchman to Florida in the purpose of murdering Carole Baskins. Is Joe Exotic capable of attempted murder? I sit somewhere in the middle, I think Joe talked about killing Carole so much in hyperbole that Jeff saw it as an opportunity to take everything he had to offer and get him out to the situation all in one swipe. Also Jeff and his crew of degenerates were already under the watchful eye of the feds and possibly were trying to feed them Joe to get the heat off of them. The bottom-line is all sources of information in this scenario are untrustworthy leaving this all to speculation.
Subliminally this story is about the pitfalls of competition and how cutthroat the human condition can be. Each character just wants to “win” when sadly there are no “winners” in this saga. These people all got into this industry for the purpose of animal conservation but the perils of greed and ego sent them all into a world that caused more pain than good. This story can be categorized as many different things but I see this as a tragedy because though we have no winners, we do have losers. The biggest being the majestic tiger that shouldn’t have to survive only in captivity but out in the wild where they belong. Seeing them used as poker chips and trophies was rather disgusting if I am going to be honest with you. They all talked about the love and personal relationships that they all have with these creatures but their actions and business decisions said different. This story is complicated and fascinating but so many questions are left unresolved and open to the viewers own interpretation. Tiger King is an amazing documentary but is also a sad tale of the dangers of drugs, materialism, and the lust for power.