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'Tiger King' on Netflix: Lions, Tigers, Murder, Mayhem and Mullets. What Could Go Wrong?
March 29, 2020  | By Alex Strachan
 


"I. Just. Can't. Even."
 
That four-word tweet was what first caught my attention.
 
Not long after the Netflix docu-series Tiger King had gone viral to become, as reported by Variety, "TV's most popular show right now," there was another tweet from yet another viewer: "You gotta watch Tiger King! I'm still like, Really? How many people are like this in this country?"
 
To which the only credible answer is: You have to ask?
 
"The whole #TigerKing saga is so bizarre," another viewer remarked, "that a guy running a cult of young virgin girls calling it a 'complex lifestyle' is just a subplot."
 
And you thought being told to stay home during a coronavirus pandemic was going to be boring.
 
First, the basics — the boring part, if you will.
 
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a seven-part true crime documentary series in the vein of Netflix's Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. As nutty as Fyre seemed, with its cast of charmers, charlatans, and layabout schemers, it has nothing on Tiger King.
 
Tiger King is set in the strange yet oddly connected world of big cat collectors and the animal-rights activists who want to shut them down.
 
Its premise is rooted in the unsettling fact that there are more tigers in captivity today in the continental U.S. than tigers living in the wild, anywhere in the world.
 
It comes as proposed legislation, the Big Cat Public Safety Act — designed to protect cats in captivity from systemic abuse and the public-at-large from being attacked and mauled by escaped big cats — has yet to be passed.
 
A January article in National Geographic, by investigative journalist Sharon Guynup with photographs by conservation photographer and frequent Geographic contributor Steve Winter, exposed the dark underbelly of the captive wild animal trade in North America. 
 
Guynup reported that Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka "Joe Exotic," (top) the de facto star of Tiger King and its central character, was sentenced to 22 years in prison on two counts of attempted murder-for-hire, as the article's subhead said, "for violence against tigers and people." 
 
Years earlier, Joe Exotic (Maldonado-Passage) established the G.W. (Garold Wayne) Zoo, now the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a self-styled wild-animal park in Oklahoma that made money from breeding tigers and charging visitors to handle and be photographed with tiger cubs.
 
That sounds like a wild and woolly tale in itself, but it's actually just the preamble.
 
Tiger King gets the bare-bones prelude out of the way quickly, in its first hour, as it introduces a parade of wild and wacky supporting characters, from the one-time cocaine trafficker who runs a secret conservation facility on the side (he claims cat conservation is his main passion; trafficking cocaine was simply a way to pay the bills) to a rival big cat breeder who has established a 50-acre animal preserve in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina that raises and trains captive, potentially dangerous animals for Hollywood films and TV shows.
 
Then there are the G.W. Zoo's employees — many of them recently released prison convicts who no one else will hire — who are paid $150 a week and given tiny, cramped rooms in an onsite trailer, and are only too happy for the work, which is hard, dangerous, and low paying. That's the madness part.
 
Enter Joe Exotic's foil, Carole Baskin, an animal-rights crusader who runs a non-profit big cat sanctuary near Tampa, Florida called Big Cat Rescue. Baskin is irked by Joe Exotic's business model and, as she sees it, his appalling treatment of the animals in his care, and vows to shut him down. She assembles an online army with deep pockets and goes all-in on her campaign of righteousness.
 
What starts as a feud soon escalates into all-out war; a weary local law-enforcement official in Oklahoma likens it to the Hatfields and the McCoys, and when Joe Exotic mentions the Waco siege in an offhand remark in a TV interview, said officer is alarmed. Mayhem and murder – alleged and attempted – soon ensue.
 
So far, the average viewer looking for something to watch during these pandemic-stricken times could be forgiven for thinking Tiger King sounds like an idle diversion, something to watch if nothing else is on.
 
By the second episode, though, it's evident there's a lot more going on than just that. As crazy as that opening hour is (give or take – most are about 45 minutes or so), the second hour is crazier. And just when you think you've seen it all — by, say, the third or fourth hour — it gets even crazier. Each hour ends with a startling, did-not-see-that-coming twist, and the subsequent hour raises the stakes even higher. It's like watching a train wreck that gets faster and faster as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion — the real reason, perhaps, Tiger King has become a social media sensation and Netflix's most talked-about program in years.
 
For anyone sensitive to the mistreatment of animals and the ethics of locking apex predators like tigers in small cages for the express purpose of breeding them for money (the cubs are often "disappeared" once they grow too big to be around people unsupervised, and are too expensive to feed), there is nothing in Tiger King that will change your mind.
 
Baskin herself has complained — just this past weekend — that Tiger King doesn't do a good enough job of showing the mistreatment these cats suffer in captivity, and she has a point. Tiger King is about the people, though, not the cats, and Baskin herself doesn't come out of the show looking too good in her own right.
 
Tiger King is gripping, absorbing entertainment, and it's addictive: Once it sinks its teeth into you, it's hard to pull free. It reveals little of the wonder and allure that draw so many people to big cats in the first place, but what is there is undeniably quirky and hard to put in a box. From wildly offbeat exchanges (Interviewer: "What kind of doctor is he?" One of the wives: "Mystical science") to hard-luck zoo workers who are more open and big-hearted than many of the so-called do-gooders in the program ("This guy was the only one who made any sense," one commenter noted on Twitter, of one of the ex-con zoo workers: "He's the Big Lebowski of the big cat world").
 
Tiger King has it all, according to a Saturday Night Live meme making the rounds on social media: "Tigers, lions, murder, a gay redneck throuple, a one-armed lesbian, alligator arson, mullets, pizza made from expired Walmart meat, a zoo-based sex cult, a crazy Cat Lady and country songs about tigers and gay love."
 
Not everyone is as enamored of Tiger King as others seem to be, of course.

"I'm watching this crazy show because everyone said I'd love it," one viewer complained on Twitter over the weekend. "I'm not."
 
"This is the most disgusting thing a human can ever watch," another posted, minutes earlier. "Still reminiscing about Tiger King."
 
And another: "I'm watching Tiger King on Netflix and, oh boy...white people."
 
"You know Tiger King is insane," another posted, "because they spend less than 15 seconds on the pizzeria which is, A. right beside a bunch of hungry, live tigers; B. called Zooters; C. serves people expired Walmart meat, D. also lol Pizzaria [sic]."
 
And this: "Who's watching Tiger King? And my follow-up question is, WTF?"
 
Come to think of it, a three-day pass to the Fyre music festival doesn't sound so bad after all. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, no-shows or not.

Tiger King
 is wild.

 
 
 
 
 
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