“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is a documentary about people who owned exotic animals like tigers and other big cats, whom they exhibited in their own makeshift zoos or sanctuaries or animal parks, depending on who you ask.
When you’re making a doc, you hope to find central figures who have big personalities and will keep viewers’ attention. Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the filmmakers behind “Tiger King,” couldn’t have asked for better subjects.
The main character is Joe Exotic, an egomaniac who had more than 200 big cats on display, plus a group of assistants who look like they came from a central casting audition for lowlifes, rednecks, and recently released jailbirds. Joe was married to a few of the men — two at a time at one point — and carried a pistol in a holster at all times. When asked if that was for protection against the cats, Joe replied, “No, the humans.” He was not talking about his own people, who all work for ridiculously low pay. He was talking about animal rights activists and local law enforcement, who Joe and his crew were ready to gun down at any time.
Then there’s “Doc” Antle, Joe’s mentor in North Carolina, with his own collection of wildlife — and not just on four legs. “Doc” had a harem of young, attractive women who not only worked on his sprawling facility, but also on him. The testimony from one woman who was part of his cult for several years before escaping is nothing less than riveting.
The third protagonist (or are they all antagonists?) is Carole Baskin, who ran a “big cat sanctuary” in Florida. Like Joe, Carole had lots of people who worked for her for virtually no paycheck, even though she (like Joe and “Doc”) charged lots for tourists to go see her animals. She propped herself up as a rescuer and protector of lions and tigers, and called out Joe several times online — but nothing compared to his obsession with her on his streaming TV show (with a whopping 80 viewers) and social media.
Joe wanted Carole dead, which is why he was sentenced a couple of months ago to 22 years in prison after being convicted of murder for hire, selling cubs, and animal abuse, including killing five of his tigers. That’s not the only grim plot line in “Tiger King.” Another involves Carole’s husband, who suddenly disappeared several years ago. She claimed not to know what happened to him, but Joe — ever eager to stoke a conspiracy theory — posited that Carole fed the guy to her tigers.
If that’s not enough, “Tiger King” also includes arson, political campaigns, lawsuits, explosions, and missing limbs. The whole thing will have you shaking your head in amazement at what these people did, how they acted, who they consorted with, and how “off the rails” seemed to be their version of normal. Like me, you probably had no idea that big cats and exotic animals were such big business, but even if you knew that, you couldn’t have guessed that these were the people driving it.
There are two ironies apparent in “Tiger King.” One is that Joe, who wanted more than anything to become famous, finally has — the documentary has been the most-viewed show on Netflix for the last week. The other is that, as one of his zoo employees said in the final episode, not one tiger, lion, chimpanzee, panther, elephant, or bear was helped by any of these people who claimed they “only wanted to help the animals.”
Is everything in this documentary true? Is anything in this documentary true? I have no idea. But it is wildly entertaining.
I give “Tiger King” a 9 out of 10.