Since its release in early March, Tiger King has certainly caused an uproar. The documentary centres around the aptly-named Joe Exotic, a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet” and owner of a big cat zoo in Oklahoma. With his multiple husbands, a penchant for drug abuse and his fingers in a series of increasingly outrageous scandals, Exotic has made a name for himself as the most outspoken man in the big cat world. Since the release of the show (Netflix’s tactical antidote to quarantine boredom), its eccentric star has been adopted by the internet as a figure of harmless fun. Recently, a campaign to “Free Joe Exotic” from the Oklahoma prison cell in which he is serving 22 years attracted the attention of many celebrities, before prompting a response from President Trump himself. While the ups and downs of Exotic’s eventful life may make for entertainingly shocking viewing and lend itself to parody, the subsequent virality of the subject matter raises interesting questions around giving a controversial figure such an extensive platform.
The eight part documentary takes place over the course of five years, focusing on Exotic’s rivalry with big cat sanctuary owner and animal rights activist Carole Baskin. The tit-for-tat war the two engage in throughout their careers is vicious. Baskin attempts to shut down Exotic’s zoo on charges of animal abuse, while Exotic accuses her of murdering her husband and mocks her mercilessly on his YouTube show. When all else fails, he hires a hitman to dispose of her. Interviews with workers at Exotic’s GW Zoo only serve to cultivate his reputation further: through these, Joe’s meth-centred marriages are explored, resulting in some upsetting moments that make for disturbing viewing. Throw in a couple of tense tiger encounters, a presidential campaign and a mysterious case of arson, the show becomes an outlandish and often hard-to-believe exposé of big cat ownership in the US. Corruption, misogyny and exploitation run deep; Exotic’s mentor and owner of a similar park, Doc Antle, is criticised for similar behaviour, and the cult-like nature of each individual zoo is highlighted.
Tiger King captures the imagination in a way that is difficult to resist. A polarising foray into the world of big cat ownership, it raises questions around the ethics of documentary and audience habits, and should be lauded at least for its exposure of the animal abuse rampant in the big cat industry.