Arts and Entertainment

How the Tiger King Captured our Hearts

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 14, Volume 110

By Shivali Korgaonkar 

Cover Image

Imagine if the next President sitting in the Oval Office was a cowboy from Oklahoma, taking calls with a 10-foot liger by his side. That’s what Joe Exotic had hoped for during his 2016 Presidential campaign. Instead, by way of Netflix, Exotic is taking to our screens for a different reason, as millions of viewers look on to watch the unconventional life of this self-proclaimed Tiger King.

In this eight-part docuseries, “Tiger King” displays the unfiltered life of Exotic through interviews with ex-husbands, police officers, employees, enemies, and fellow tiger owners. This series focuses on how and why Exotic created a semi-legal private zoo with over 200 tigers and big cats and how it all came crashing down. While his fame made its way onto TV screens across America, Exotic found himself fighting against his worst nightmare: Carole Baskin, arguably both the protagonist and antagonist of the show. Baskin spent millions of dollars striving to show the negative aspects of animal captivity and shut down privately owned zoos like Exotic’s, who inhumanely breed big cats.

In the first few episodes, the series is set up like a reality show, with seemingly dozens of underlying conflicts bubbling beneath the surface. With Exotic ending up in jail for a murder-for-hire charge against Baskin in the final episode, however, the purpose of this show extends far beyond the screen.

The candid nature of this show can be credited to Exotic himself, who recorded every second of his life, even before his true stardom hit. The producers of the series were able to catch every single argument and injury in the most realistic nature. Early in the show, we catch the exact moment one of Exotic’s long-time employees gets his forearm ripped off by a tiger. We also see the moment Exotic’s alligator farm shed is burnt down, killing eight crocodiles and alligators, the moment when (one of) Exotic’s husbands shoots himself, and countless other moments that definitely shouldn’t have been recorded. Through this strikingly candid footage, we’re able to see the good that comes with passionate animal enthusiasts and the bad that comes with keeping wild animals in a cage.

While many would oppose animal captivity of any form, the Tiger King’s ability to gather viewers’ empathy is quite astonishing. The producers make an effort to present all the show’s material in a generally unbiased manner. It’s up to the viewers to form their own opinions about each character and the series of events that ensue throughout the show. So why do many viewers end up supporting the tiger captor over the tiger protector?

Exotic, the self-proclaimed Tiger King, is unlike any human on this planet. With a blond mullet, a glittery vest, two husbands, an arch-nemesis, and hundreds of feral pets, Exotic limps around with a confidence unique to someone in his precise position (which is to say, just him). Yet at the same time, it’s evident that the pompous Tiger King isn’t, and has never been, happy in his life. He grew up gay in rural Oklahoma and attempted suicide toward the end of his adolescence. Later on, he and his parents struggle to pay the neverending legal bills coming from large-scale animal protection agencies, and in the end, he gets put in jail for hiring a hitman to kill Baskin, though the hitman never ended up completing the task. It’s difficult not to empathize with this figure because, while he has constantly been portrayed as the evil, inhumane zookeeper, viewers are constantly reminded of his tumultuous upbringing and feel a sense of relatability regarding his misrepresentation. Exotic is a no-nonsense type of guy who doesn’t hide his craziness. And because of this, many celebrities, including rapper Cardi B, have vowed to free Exotic from jail.

On the other hand, Baskin’s mysterious motives and potentially murderous history confuse the audience, making the “hero” no longer easy to recognize. She is first presented as an innocent, whole-hearted woman, wearing flower crowns and animal print shirts. As the show progresses, the audience discovers that she actually owns her own zoo with unpaid volunteers and animals that don’t appear to be in much better conditions than Exotic’s. Interestingly, this seemingly pure and righteous woman has triggered an online movement, dedicated to finding out what happened to her first husband, whose cause of death is unknown. Many believe that Baskin fed her husband to the tigers, while some think he isn’t actually dead. Viewers actively trying to find out more information about the show’s topics is a clear sign of a job well done by the show’s creators.

“Tiger King” documents murder, lies, crime, and deceit from numerous different characters, while still finding a common thread to tie them together. When a show is able to have such a profound impact on viewers outside of the hour-long episodes, its success can’t be argued. “Tiger King is a story without heroes or happy endings. As humans, we want every case to be closed, so our interest in this show stems from knowing that justice hasn’t been served. For this reason, I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ll see of the Tiger King.