The recipe for success is obvious. Take one part self-described “gay, gun-totin’ redneck with a mullet,” one part animal activist and conservationist who may have murdered her first husband, and one part sex cult leader, then pour over the top the fact that they are all owners of roadside “zoos” featuring primarily exotic big cats. These are the ingredients which went into Netflix’ new documentary series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
Five years ago, co-directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode started working on a documentary focusing on the illegal trade in snakes, reptiles, turtles and tortoises. That lead them to people who were trafficking in big cats, which lead them to change the direction of their project. The directors wanted to take a look at the ramifications of privately owning large, exotic animals, but still make it “entertaining and fun,” Chaiklin told Esquire.
These roadside zoos are more akin to brothels than proper zoos, which focus on conservation, research and education. The roadside zoos depicted in Tiger King are for-profit operations where, unlike a real zoo, the public gets to interact and get pictures with cubs and adolescent lions, tigers and other big cats. Presumably, this is where a lot of those pictures with tigers on Tinder originate. Similar to the aforementioned brothels, once the animals age out (i.e. get too big and too dangerous to be around the public) they are moved off into small cages and eventually gotten rid of, one way or another. The San Diego Zoo these are not.
“I originally set out to do a project that was a combination of Best in Show, Grizzly Man and Blackfish,” Goode explains. ” “The core reason for doing this was, how do you create awareness about the suffering and exploitation of exotic animals but in a way where you can engage an audience? It was equally important for me to dig into the pathology of these characters as it was to expose the horrible practices of exploiting these animals.
Read more: Why Tiger King Is Not Blackfish for Big Cats
“Initially, I was doing a story on all these different subcultures, whether they were reptile people or primate people or bird people or tropical fish people,” he continues. “Then I teamed up with Rebecca Chaiklin and we started to focus on the United States. Ultimately I homed in on Joe and Carole because of that war that was ensuing between the two of them.” To read the full interview, click here.
The series focuses on three subjects, Joe Exotic, Carol Baskin and Doc Antle, all owners of big cat zoos. Baskin dislikes Exotic because he breeds his cats to draw customers for his zoo, but also to sell to private buyers and other roadside zoos. She actively works to shut him down, contacting malls, fairs and other venues where Exotic is booked to show his animals.
Exotic hates Baskin because she is cutting off his much needed revenue stream and he sees her as a hypocrite because she started out just like him, but pivoted to being a conservationist and big cat activist.
Antle falls somewhere between the two, working to maintain his business along with its constant flow of young female employees, as well as hoping that his competition may knock each other out of the game.
The titular subject, Exotic (Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, né Schreibvogel), owns the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoo (also, Greater Wynnewood Zoo), which sits on 16 acres in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and holds 50 species and 200 large cats. In addition to “gay, gun-totin’ redneck with a mullet,” Exotic needs to add country singer, polygamist, YouTube star, and felon to his bio. The fact that he is unapologetic about his mullet should tip you off that there is something not quite right about him.
Baskin seems like the virtuous one of the three, running a “rescue” and working for legislation to restrict and eventually outlaw the keeping of big cats by private individuals or large institutions and zoos. Her Big Cat Rescue is a non-profit which rescues and rehabilitates big cats. However, she has a chequered past, having broken up the marriage of her second husband so they could be married. Later, he disappears under mysterious circumstances and was eventually declared dead. The unproven, though very feasible rumor is that Baskin killed him and fed him to her tigers, because he was going to divorce her.
Antle sits at the midpoint between Exotic and Baskin. He runs The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) and Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, a more professional operation than Exotic, but he still breeds cats and is accused by Baskin and Exotic of euthanizing the older ones. He also seems to be some sort of mid-level cult leader, maintaining multiple “girlfriends,” picked from the ranks of the attractive, young women he hires.
As Goode described his subjects to Entertainment Weekly, “This is not about someone’s love of animals, it’s about status. It’s complicated, it’s about a lot of things, it’s about status, it’s about collecting the rarest of the rare, it’s about image, it’s about money, it’s about a lot of things and it’s complicated. If someone really loved these animals, they wouldn’t have a collection.”
The through line of the series veers away from the question of keeping large wild animals captive, thousands of miles from their habitat and instead focuses on the ever increasing animosity between Exotic and Baskin. “They were completely obsessed with each other,” Chaiklin tells Esquire. “We would go to film with Carole and [her husband] Howard, and all they would do is talk about Joe, literally just from morning to night. And then we’d go to film with Joe, and all he would do is talk about Carole.”
Their conflict rises to the level of toxicity where Exotic is shooting an effigy of Baskin on his almost daily YouTube show and Baskin and her husband sue Exotic for copyright infringement and win. Exotic’s life and business start to spiral downward from there.
“We were very fortunate in that we had the narrative through-line in this escalating feud, but when we started we had no idea where it would go,” Chaiklin tells Danielle Turchiano. “It was this somewhat humorous feud that had a very fascinating show quality to it, but we never in a million years expected it to take this true crime twist.”
Read more: Tiger King is Catnip…But Is It Any Good?
At first glance, the series seems trashy and lowbrow, something else to throw on the pile of pervasive reality shows and it is, but there is something compelling about these characters and their stories. They are the car wreck and you cannot look away. Audiences would never sit for a seven hour movie, but viewers have gladly binged this show in a single day. Even at seven hours, viewers will still want more.
Thematically, the idea of disposability runs through the entire series. People are used up and cast aside, like Baskin’s first two husbands, Exotic’s second and third husbands, Exotic’s employees, and finally even Exotic. The animals are all disposable. They are used up and then tossed out. For these “zoo” keepers, image is paramount to them, everything else is expendable.
“They use these cats as a status symbol, to carve [themselves] out as being special,” Goode tells Esquire. Chaiklin adds, “Their identities were completely tied up in their cats, whether it was being the ‘Mother Teresa of Cats,’ or the ‘Tiger King.’”
Every one of the main subjects is an awful human being. They are all reprehensible, but it is hard not to watch them. They profess a love for their animals, but they have no interest in them beyond how the animals make them look and what they can earn from them.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work to care for that many animals, especially wild animals in captivity. The people believe, and in their own skewed way, feel as though they love their animals,” Chaiklin explained to Entertainment Weekly. “For some, it’s like being in an abusive relationship. They would tell you they love their animals and they love this way of life and it’s the only way of life they know and that’s why they work so hard at it. So, it’s nuanced on some level, even though it’s quite cruel to most of the animals, they believe they love them.”
“I’ve been in this exotic animal world for a long time, and I wanted to expose the exploitation and the suffering of these cats,” Goode explains to Rolling Stone. “The challenge was to create a new type of series that looks at the pathology of animal people and the ethics of keeping exotic animals.”
“What I think is the more important point here is that these roadside zoos were basically, in many ways, cults, and they created their own world with their own sets of rules,” Goode tells Danielle Turchiano. These people lived outside mainstream society, and they ultimately, in Joe’s case, created this world and had a staff who drank the Kool-Aid and he was the charismatic leader and he ultimately was his own worst enemy. He didn’t play by society’s rules in any way, shape or form, and that caught up to him. And Doc Antle did the same thing, and Carole, in her own way, did it slightly differently.
“But at the end of the day they were very selfish in how they used the animals and the people that they seduced into their worlds. It’s very attractive to fantasize about being a tiger keeper, a tiger trainer or an exotic animal keeper and raise chimpanzees. It’s easy to bring people into these worlds and indoctrinate them and get them hooked and pay them virtually nothing. That’s the bigger point that we wanted to address [in the docuseries]: How did he do this?” To read the full interview, click here.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is streaming now on Netflix.