Marah Eakin: Katie, like me and so, so many other people, I know you spent the past few days blasting through Netflix’s new docuseries Tiger King. I also know that, like me, you listened to Wondery’s podcast Joe Exotic, which actually sparked the Tiger King filmmakers’ interest in the wild world of backyard wildlife. The docuseries and the podcast are of a piece, and if you’re interested in Joe Exotic, there’s lots to like about both. But watching Tiger King in particular, I think we were both struck but just how weirdly sexual all these big cat dudes are? Everyone makes a big deal out of Joe Exotic’s three-way marriage, and that he was this out, gay man running a zoo in rural Oklahoma, but what Tiger King really shines a light on—in addition to the plight of wildlife in captivity, of course—is the not-so-subtle undercurrent of misogyny, grooming, and cult-like behavior that appears so prevalent in the big cat community that we’ve been granted access to through the podcast and series.
It’s everywhere, really. From the way Carole Baskin—who truly has a lot of faults, don’t get me wrong—is referred to constantly as a bitch and represented by a blow-up doll on Joe Exotic’s streaming show to “Doc” Antle’s weird grooming of young girls that he eventually adopts into his workaholic harem. Then there’s strip club owner James Garrettson referring to openly gay Joe Exotic as “the tiger queen” and Jeff Lowe’s gross leering at the hot, unsuspecting nanny he’s going to bring into his future child’s life—right after his wife pops out the baby, then hits the gym.
I don’t even know where to start with all of this, Katie. Did any of these real-life characters strike you as a woman-hating creep?
Katie Rife: Perhaps it’s because he’s just such an outsized and quintessentially American character, but the only person on the series who I actually liked, even after he got sent to jail, was Joe Exotic. I don’t think that Joe’s hatred of Carole came from a place of misogyny, and he would have been just as over-the-top in his rivalry with a male zoo owner. That’s just who he is. He’s a shitkicker and a pot-stirrer, and he seems to really love being in the middle of a soap opera of his own making—which ties in to his greatest flaw, which is his narcissism. Similarly, and I say this from a place of affection, he may not be the sharpest crayon in the proverbial box, making it quite easy for Jeff and James to exploit his unquenchable thirst for validation and attention.
Does Joe Exotic have a big mouth and no common sense? Absolutely. Did his ego get the better of him? Big time. Does he hate women? I don’t think so, given that he seems to have had close relationships with several of the women who worked at G.W. Exotic. I think he hated Carole so much because she threatened to take away his park, which threatened his status as the “Tiger King” and thus the image he’d built for himself in his mind. I feel a little sorry for him, actually, because loud, blustering characters like Joe Exotic are usually overcompensating for deep insecurity.
As for the rest of them, they’re all creeps—particularly Jeff, who evaporated whatever sympathy I had for him (which wasn’t much) with those disgusting, predatory nanny comments at the very end of the series. The look on his girlfriend Lauren’s face as he “joked” about it was so sad. That being said, I try to be an open-minded person, so the big cat people’s penchant for polyamory was amusing to me—at least when it was first introduced. It’s all part of a spectrum of alternative-lifestyle type interests that tend to go together: There’s a Satanist in my neighborhood who has a potbellied pig, for example, and he’s an okay dude. And while pretty much every polyamorous couple I’ve ever met has been a little eccentric, most of them are perfectly nice people. So, y’know, I’m not going to say it’s inherently abusive to have two husbands or three girlfriends or whatever.
As always with polyamory, the problem comes in the way it’s practiced. And as the full story was laid out, I became very uncomfortable realizing that Antle’s “partners” clearly aren’t in a place, emotionally or financially, where they can fully consent to this arrangement. I agree that he’s engaging in some emotionally abusive grooming behavior akin to that of a cult leader: His practice of bringing in women when they’re still in their teens, for example, and the way he controls what they eat and how they dress. I can’t justify Joe plying his husbands Travis and John with cars, guns, and meth, either. But again, there’s a howling pit of pathetic need at the center of Joe Exotic’s character that makes me feel just a little more forgiving.
As for Carole, I do think it’s hypocritical for her to blast the rest of the zookeepers for breeding cubs when she used to do the same thing herself. And just because her volunteers don’t live on the premises doesn’t mean she isn’t exploiting them by allowing them to work full-time for free. It’s a lesser type of exploitation, perhaps, more akin to an improv school than the sexual slavery going on over at “Doc” Antle’s. And I will give her this: She’s not killing the tigers when they get too big to snuggle, as is revealed to be common practice at the end of the series.
So, in short, it’s complicated. All I can say for sure is that, in my mind, there are three camps in this story: The cat ladies, the creeps, and the misfits over at Joe Exotic’s place. Oh, and Carole Baskin 100 percent killed her second husband.
Marah: I don’t know, man. I don’t think she has it in her to kill. I mean, again, I don’t know her, and I don’t know a lot about the mysterious stories alluded to in Tiger King regarding her old boyfriend, but if she did off Don, what did she do with him? Do you really think Carole, alone in the night, killed him, dismembered him, and then dragged him, piece by piece, into different tiger’s cages for him to be eaten? And then cleaned up and went about her business for the rest of her life? I don’t know. Her current husband is a big dork, though, and I love it.
As far as the improv-level exploitation, I agree that it’s not ideal that she’s not paying her army of t-shirted volunteers. But it’s also—as we learn on the show—wildly expensive to be caring for big cats. I don’t begrudge her charging to get into see the animals to waylay some of those expenses, and if you do that, you’ve got to have people to show them around. If you’re going to pay them, then how do you come up with that money? I guess there could be some sort of zoo grants, but then again, we don’t begrudge zoos for charging people to get in, and having various volunteers and docents, right? We accept that our money is needed to feed those animals and to maintain grounds. That being said, zoos pay their zookeepers and staff.
As to whether Carole committed cub-selling sins in the past with her maybe-murdered second husband, absolutely. But I think she’s allowed to change and grow, and realize she’s done something wrong over time. That was 20-plus years ago, and she clearly regrets it now. If you want to say “too bad, you’re banned from credibility forever,” that’s totally cool. I think you’re well within your right to say that, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt, because she clearly does love the cats.
I don’t want to hang out with Carole or anything—I don’t actually like cats, like, at all, so I don’t know what we’d have to talk about—but I also thought she made some of the most salient points in the entire docuseries when it came to some of these big cat peoples’ relationship to the actual cats. I really liked her lines about how a lot of these guys—”Doc” Antle, Joe Exotic, people on Tinder posting pics with tiger cubs—aren’t necessarily respecting the animals for their looks, power, and intelligence, but rather using them as tools to show how cool *they* are. As in, the pictures are never just of the cats. They’re of the person with the cats. It’s you cuddling a tiger cub, not just a tiger cub playing by itself. Tie that together with Joe Exotic’s campaign manager Joshua Dial’s line about how none of these people—Carole included—actually care about the animals because they’ve spent millions upon millions of dollars on bullshit, when the money could actually be going to saving cats in the wild rather than in cages, and I just felt like, wow, these people are huge assholes.
What line or thoughts struck you the hardest, Katie?
Katie: I am a cat person, myself—as I type this, I have a cat sitting next to me, stretched out and napping—and I come from a family of animal lovers. My sister is a veterinarian, and some of my fondest childhood memories come from attending zoo camp at the Cincinnati Zoo. Outcasts and colorful characters are also my favorite kind of people, so you can see where my loyalties are divided in this situation.
For me, I found the epilogue of Tiger King—which laid out the statistics about tiger ownership in the United States—to be vanishingly insincere, the sort of language you tack on to the end of a statement because you know it’s going to make people upset. And it is upsetting, hearing about animals being mistreated. That’s something that comes up in the last episode of the series that stuck with me: the idea that, although ego got in the way—not just with Joe Exotic, but with all of them, as you mentioned, Marah—deep down, they all love animals, or at least they did at one time.
That’s what makes it all so sad. In the end, vulnerable creatures are being used as pawns in a narcissistic game between people who just don’t know when to quit. And I don’t just mean stopping the rivalry between Joe and Carole before it escalated to attempted murder. I mean little things, like Carole turning a news segment about her missing husband into a self-pitying monologue about how hard it’s been for her to “live under a cloud of suspicion.” I agree with you, Marah, that it’s silly to say Carole fed her husband to her tigers. Dismembering a body is just not something the vast majority of people are capable of doing. But she had both the opportunity and the motive to make him disappear, and she didn’t seem terribly surprised when he did. I know people grieve differently, and you can’t say someone is guilty just because they’re not breaking down in hysterics when a loved one disappears. But the whole thing—the buildup, the disappearance itself, her reaction afterwards—just sets off warning bells in the part of my brain that enjoys Oxygen true-crime shows. Without a body, we’ll never know, which just makes the mystery all the more intriguing.
Anyway, consider also Joe’s offhand comment in the fifth episode that he’s got a shipment of 22 tigers coming in the next day, and former drug kingpin Mario Tabraue remembering that as soon as he was able to get a pet, he bought not one, but three Great Danes. It’s that drive for more—more animals, more followers, more money, more fame—that may explain the big cat people’s collective penchant for polyamory, now that I think about it. It also underlines something we humans could stand to learn from animals: They’re not greedy, and if you feed them well and don’t get in their face, they’ll generally leave you alone. Now, excuse me while I go snuggle my cat and go watch the “I Saw A Tiger” video again.