‘Tiger King’ in review: a train wreck and a meme

The popular Netflix documentary series has a dual nature

Will Seward

More stories from Will Seward

A tiger sitting down staring at the camera.

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For what it’s worth: This show review will contain some spoilers; assuming the memes all over the internet haven’t spoiled enough for you already.

“Tiger King.” It is a goldmine for memes all over the internet. If you haven’t heard of it already, you probably would not have opened this article. 

In the rare case you haven’t heard of the show, let me fill you in.

The show gets its title from the individual who is the main focus of the show. His full name is  Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, but he is referenced most as Joe Exotic. The last names and hyphens are added as the show goes on, so it is less confusing to go by his nickname.

Exotic was the previous owner and founder of G.W. Zoo., the original zoo in the plot. Over time, the name and ownership of the zoo change, but that is for later.

The show is pretty ironic, especially considering what we are experiencing right now globally. The show begins by introducing Exotic, a self-proclaimed “gun-toting gay redneck” with a mullet, which is his justification for running a zoo. 

He often defends himself against the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, Carole Baskin. Throughout the show, Baskin is often accompanied by her husband, Howard Baskin.

There are plenty of other characters in “Tiger King,” but these two are head-to-head throughout the entire series.

While the show has moments of genuine care, it still feels like a giant meme. The series is both problematic and progressive and is a weird middle ground of doing the right thing, haphazardly. 

The show mostly focuses on  a gay man, which I think is great. I don’t think the LGBT community is represented enough in pop culture. A lot of Exotic’s pride in himself comes from his sexuality, and I think it is important to highlight and appreciate that.

At the same time, one of Exotic’s employees — who uses he/him pronouns — is consistently misgendered and frequently referred to by his dead name.

Exotic and Baskin both argue that they are operating in the best interest of the exotic animals by keeping them enclosed in sanctuaries.  Yes, there are animals other than big cats — there are various apes as well.

I would love to believe that it is true, however, in more than 100 scenes throughout the show, there is footage of animals in cages not much larger than them. 

There is footage of larger cats being fed expired meat from a Walmart store and footage of cages overcrowded with 10 or more animals that are not properly maintained.

I would love to give these people the benefit of the doubt and believe their claims of honest intentions.  However, it does not seem apparent in the conditions of the cages and treatment of the animals.

The examples go on, but the general trend of problematic outcomes with progressive or optimistic intentions remains.

The biggest takeaway from the series is found in the last couple of episodes, when Exotic goes to prison for 22 years. He is charged with multiple accounts of animal abuse, wildlife violations and a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin.

Exotic is interviewed from prison in the final episodes of the show, where he complains about being in a cage and how poorly he is treated. He goes on to say that the reason animals die in cages is because “their soul dies.”

At the end of it all, the best thing about the show is the wildlife sanctuaries that are, to some extent, exposed. The recent anti-quarantine protests — like those in Michigan — are ironic when there are animals that spend their entire lives in a version of quarantine.

How we feel during quarantine is temporary. We have the ability to change how we live our lives. We will be able to socialize and leave quarantine soon enough. Animals in zoos and sanctuaries will not. 

I highly recommend “Tiger King.” There are so many circumstances and scenarios that are filled with complication and problematic ideology that the show challenges you, forcefully, to change your worldview and outlook of humanity and morality. 

Don’t expect to feel great about animal rights, the justice system or the people in the series by the time you reach the end.

Seward can be reached at [email protected]