Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness has all the makings of another true-crime obsession—melodrama, loose ends, wildlife, and even wilder hair. Word of Joe Exotic’s exploits spread among A.V. Club staffers, many of whom began their binge watches over the weekend, while others are still knee-deep in the rivalry between conservationists and zookeepers. But even those of us who have finished the docuseries from Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin still have many questions and feelings about the fate of Tiger King’s subjects (two-legged and four-legged), which we discuss here.
Update: Some of these questions have now been answered by podcast host Robert Moor.
Filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin jump back and forth and sideways in their docuseries, which started as a look into the world of reptile breeding and animal smuggling. That made Tiger King a bit hard to follow, which is why, as Randall observes, the main narrative doesn’t get the attention it deserves. James Garretson intones in the first episode that “big-cat people” are categorically a backstabbing lot, and while that bears out over the course of the docuseries, I’m not sure Goode and Chaiklin ever form a thesis on their subject. They just keep adding more interviewees and potential witnesses; more scandalizing stories and abominable behavior. I finished Tiger King two days ago, but I am still mulling over a few questions—namely, why is cub-petting a guaranteed panty-dropper among certain demographics? Does the monkey on Tim Stark’s shoulder have a name? And, most importantly, why is Jeff Lowe still operating a zoo? It’s not just that Tiger King and Joe Exotic make the case for his involvement in the murder-for-hire plot; why hasn’t Lowe come under the same scrutiny? Is it possible that there’s an open investigation, and that’s why the Lowe thread is left as a loose end? Clearly, I’m going to need a follow-up series—say, The Return Of The Tiger King?
I’m only four episodes in, but as somebody who’s long been interested in cult behaviors, from Jonestown to NXIVM, I find myself particularly fascinated by Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and the culture of polyamory he’s cultivated at the Myrtle Beach Safari. I know he’s not a key figure in this docuseries—a criticism one could lodge at Tiger King is the amount of time it spends on stories that don’t advance the primary narrative—but his story does provide a context for how these private zoos can evolve into communal spaces for outcasts or those interested in alternative lifestyles. It feels generous somehow to describe Doc or Joe as “cult leaders,” but their need to micromanage how they’re perceived, as well as the all-or-nothing mentality forced on those in their orbit, speaks volumes about the ways in which they oversee these pocket societies, thus soiling the otherwise lovely narrative of misfits banding together in a cruel world. As much as I’m swept up in the murder-for-hire plot, the ethical questions of cub-petting, and those transcendent music videos, it’s this dynamic that I’m finding the most captivating.
I’m only three episodes into this fever dream, so most of my burning questions remain perfunctory for the time being. Mostly, I just question why all big-cat lovers seem to have questionable hairstyle choices. Early on, we hear Joe mention he wants to keep his hat on so people don’t think he has crazy hair. Spoiler alert, Joe, the hat wasn’t keeping us from thinking that. But Joe is not alone. From hair bleached beyond repair to mop tops that look like they’ve never met a comb, Tiger King has a deep bench of hair nightmares. I do have to give it to Don’s first wife, Gladys, though. Most people are being patronizing when they say someone’s mother could be their sister, but in this case she looks to be the same age as her two daughters who can’t seem to stay in the same chair for more than five minutes. But aside from the superficial: I did freak out seeing John Reinke (G.W. Zoo’s manager with the two prosthetic legs) bring that tiny dachshund into a lion cage like it was no big deal. The lion didn’t seem to even notice the dog—and I know animals have been known to develop surprising friendships—but I need to know for certain that dog did not become kitty chow.
I have similar concerns for Doc’s employee/possible wife who forgot to clean the chain that ended up ruining his shirt. I have never seen a more textbook example of passive aggression than Doc chastising her. And then, of course, there’s the question of “What happened to Don?” Most of the friends I watched with via Netflix Party believe Carole must have killed him for the money, since Don seemingly left all his savings behind. But I think Don could have stored some money away, run off with his Costa Rican girlfriend, and left obvious clues of a “staged” airport getaway to make it seem like Carole killed him and get her sent to prison. Yes, the restraining order request could be evidence he legitimately feared for his life, but it also could have been him planting the seeds for her to be a suspect… I hear we don’t get any closure on this subject, so I’m just gonna go with my theory.
In its final moments, Tiger King gives us a rare glimpse of a pre-“Exotic” Joe in an old local news package where he advocates for an end to big-cat breeding in the States. A crystal-clear allegory of “pride coming before the fall,” this moment highlights how Joe’s worldview was warped by money and power, to the extent that his collection of animals are (at best) an afterthought and (at worst) a casualty. Ironically, Tiger King is guilty of this too. That’s not to fault the series—after all, you can’t deny the inherent entertainment factor of an ersatz “Doc” who may be operating a sex cult, or a feline-friendly hippie who may have murdered her own husband. But, when it’s all said and done, my critter-loving heart breaks for all of the animals caught between this twisty plot of fraud, fur, and felonies. What will be become of Joe Exotic’s lions and tigers and bears—insert pause here—now that they’re under the ownership of Jeff Lowe, whose ambitions toward a new zoo of his own seem destined to fail? Will they be sold off to other private collectors, or will legitimate animal sanctuaries swoop in and save the day? Because of the story’s recency, Tiger King is unable to provide answers or reassurance. In their conversation with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin worry that Lowe may have to put down many of the animals in order to keep the zoo afloat, especially in this time of a worldwide pandemic. If there’s a silver lining, the sheer number of eyeballs on Netflix’s (current) most-watched series will certainly raise awareness of these animals’ plight and hopefully expedite their path to a secure and healthy home, if not advance some legislative reform.