Tiger King: An Ethical Trainwreck

Tiger+King%3A+An+Ethical+Trainwreck

Jalin Reyes ’21, Staff Writer

** SPOILER WARNING **

Hey, all you cool cats and kittens, it’s Jalin Reyes here with Greenwich Academy’s newspaper. In a time of state-wide shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, what more is there to do than watch the most entertaining shows on Netflix? I assume we’ve all seen or heard about Tiger King and if you haven’t, then you’re probably a lot saner than the rest of America. Tiger King is a seven-part documentary series about a gay, polygamous zoo owner in Oklahoma who breeds tigers, stars in his own country music videos, reigns over a small cult of younger men, and runs for President and governor of Oklahoma in 2019 on a libertarian platform. This man, known as Joe Exotic, is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for, among other charges, conspiring to assassinate his archnemesis Carole Baskin, an animal sanctuary owner in Florida. As if the life of Joe Exotic and his quest to kill Carole Baskin doesn’t fill your plate enough, the series also adds in one of his business allies, Doc Antle, who is another big cat breeder based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Tiger King has consumed pop-cultural imagination for more than two weeks and it landed as #1 watched on Netflix in America. Social media platforms are flooded with fan pages, conspiracy theories, memes, and different opinions on whether or not Carole Baskin really did kill her husband, but why? The question I am going to pose to you all and try to answer myself is why we are all so captivated with a show about weirdos, murder, and giant cats? Are we obsessed because it is so abnormal that it makes us feel more normal? 

Pushing the million other problems with Tiger King aside for a moment, let’s discuss what I see as the main issue: the abuse of both animals and humans. Starting off with Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, both people illegally purchase and place tigers in captivity for a profit. Joe’s zoo, the G.W. Zoo, allows people to either see or pet a cub and Carole Baskin’s “sanctuary,” Big Cat Rescue, puts these big cats on display for anyone purchasing a ticket. Both parties claim they do their best to ensure the cats’ wellness but how can that be when the best remedy is allowing these cats to roam freely in their natural habitats? In addition, cub petting is not safe because these cubs are not used to living in an environment where humans are constantly touching and scratching them. Cub petting does more harm than good and the only reason it is still around is because it is fueled by greed. Moving along, Doc Antle has been accused by animal rights organizations for violating the Federal Animal Welfare Act. There are claims that he has beaten tigers, placed them in unsafe exhibits filled with sharp wires and nails and has failed to adequately give them enough water, vet care, and cage space. All of these points of mistreatment would not otherwise be known to the audience if they did not do their own research. 

Tiger King focused more on Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle’s manipulative tendencies than their mistreatment of animals. Joe Exotic is a gay man who practices polygamy. John Finlay was Joe’s first partner in the show and was hired to work at the G.W. Zoo when he was just 19-years-old. In 2013, Joe’s second partner 19-year-old Travis Maldanado was hired to work at the G.W. Zoo as well. By early 2014, Joe Exotic married John and Travis in a three-way ceremony. Less than a year after the relationship, Finlay wanted out because he felt Joe was becoming domineering, controlling, and obsessive. He eventually leaves and marries a woman who also worked at the zoo and they have a child together. As for Travis, he stayed with Joe because Joe paid for his drug addiction. Travis was never allowed to leave the zoo and it was clear that his mental health was deteriorating as Joe became more controlling. Maldanado passed away in 2017 after accidentally shooting himself in the head at the zoo’s gift shop. It is sickening to me that Joe held such power and manipulation over these young men, and it was even more devastating to hear the sorrow pour out of Travis’ parents when they spoke of his death. 

While Joe seems to be the worst of them all, Doc Antle and Carole Baskin, in my opinion, are no better. Carole Baskin owns and operates Big Cat Rescue and all of its workers are volunteers. She feels that there are people who want to work at the sanctuary for free because they have a love for the cats that doesn’t need to be satisfied with money. I understand that I don’t know all of the details of the daily lives of the volunteers in Big Cat Rescue, but for Carole to have people working for such long hours with no pay and for many years, seems absurd considering her substantial profits. On the other hand, there is the big conspiracy theory that she killed her husband and fed him to the tigers. While that claim without a doubt seems absurd, until the truth is revealed about what actually happened to Carole’s late ex-husband, I will take the stance that she did indeed kill her husband. Lastly, Doc Antle has his fair share of manipulating and mistreating his mainly female workforce. One woman in particular, Barbara Fisher, speaks out against Doc Antle in the docu-series. Fisher explains to producers that the women who were hired to work at Myrtle Beach Safari were only allowed to call Doc “Bhagavan”, meaning lord. She also claims that in order for women to move up in rank, they were required to have sex with him. If you don’t already despise this man as much as I do, he pressured Fisher into getting breast implants while she was working at the zoo.

After reviewing the entire docu-series again, I noticed two people who, in my opinion, should have been praised more for their love for the tigers than the horrific events that occured in their lives. The first person is Saff Saffery, the easy-going manager at Joe Exotic’s zoo. He is introduced early in the series with footage of a brutal attack by a tiger after he put his arm in the animal’s cage. Saffery is given the option of two years of reconstructive surgeries or amputation and he chooses amputation so he can get back to the big cats and so Joe isn’t blamed for what happened. Saffery takes full responsibility and says he chose to stick his hand in the cage which is against protocol. If that doesn’t portray a deep dedication to these big cats, I don’t know what does. Secondly, there is Barabra Fisher, mentioned above, who is portrayed in the show as a victim and a witness to the sexual abuse of Doc Antle. Although what happened to her was terrible and I believe Doc Antle should be held accountable for what he did, there is a brief moment where she discusses a tiger cub that became her motivation for going to work everyday. Fisher shows numerous photos of her and many cubs smiling, enjoying their moments together. What strikes me the most is after her story, she can’t remember what happened to the cubs. She never saw them again and believes Doc Antle had something to do with their disappearance. There are rumors that he shot and killed the cubs, but nothing has been proven. Nonetheless, I believe if there is going to be any good to come out of this eccentric docu-series, it is Fisher and Saffery. In comparison to Carole Baskin, who I read as inauthentic, they truly loved and cared for the cubs and tigers.

So, why are we all watching this show and giving it so much popularity when so much  about it is immoral? Well, we are all home with nothing better to do right? I mean I assume we all have seen the mainstream Netflix shows such as The Office, Gossip Girl, Stranger Things, All-American, etc. and now there is nothing to watch except for whatever is new. I get it, we are all human and it is normal for all of us to have our down time to do and watch whatever, but I do ask you to notice one thing: throughout the whole docu-series, there was no mention of a place to donate to help these precious animals out of captivity and back into the wild. Did you know that in the U.S. today, there are more animals in captivity and on display than there are in the wild (Source: www.worldwildlife.org)? Sickening isn’t it? To think that someone one day would just strip you of your home and place you on display for their own greed. While Joe, Carole, and Doc Antle are the true villains of Tiger King, the producers are no better for making it seem like a joke by having no real plot and just putting out a bunch of weirdos with insane lives. Producers will always make events seem different from the truth so their pockets will get bigger, but I ask that you don’t allow yourself to be misguided. Every meme and fan page is masking Tiger King for what it really is: an ethical trainwreck. 

If you are interested in donating to organizations that are currently helping exploit these zoos and protect tigers in the wild, check out Save Tigers Now. It is a global campaign by the World Wildlife Fund and Leonardo Dicaprio to build political, financial, and public support to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next year of the tiger.