In the midst of the recent pandemic, many have resorted to binge-watching Netflix’s insane, true-crime, seven part docu-series called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. A staggering statistic in the documentary reveals that there are more tigers owned by irresponsible people in the United States than there are in their natural habitat throughout the world. One of these unqualified zoo operators is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, infamously known as Joe Exotic, who used to own a total of 187 tigers. Along with Joe Exotic are Bhagavan Antle and Carole Baskin, who each possess private ownership of exotic pets.
The show provides an absurd insight into how the aforementioned figures treat these animals, yet somehow manages to make it all about the entertaining qualities surrounding the characters of the show. Although the series presents a narrative that disapproves of the general act of animal abuse, it fails to explore the necessary conversation about the fundamental reasons for why it might be wrong to have private ownership of endangered species. They focus on establishing the characters’ background, such as Joe Exotic’s inspiration for starting The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park being a tribute to Joe’s brother, who died in a car crash in 1997. It then takes us through Joe’s journey of his simultaneous “marriage” with two young men (one of whom had passed away from an accidental shooting), and an intense rivalry with Carole Baskin, who he accuses of “sucking [him] dry of money and wanting all of [his] animals.” Instead of portraying Joe solely as an abominable being for killing some of his tigers and denying the cubs from their mothers, the show attempts to humanize him using his captivating personality and his unfortunate past. What is more troubling is the public’s popular reaction from viewing Tiger King. Although some rationally-minded audiences, such as animal rights activists, have criticized the focus of the documentary, celebrities like Cardi B have expressed their sympathies towards Joe Exotic, brushing over countless irreversible damage he inflicted on the animals. Even the current US president, Donald Trump, has stated that he will “take a look at” pardoning Joe Exotic from his jail sentence for multiple charges of animal abuse and plotting the murder of Carole Baskin.
The documentary captures the so-called “emotional bonds” between the characters and their caged animals but lacks a critical assessment of how this superficial bond translates to the treatment of the animals. For instance, the show contains footage of Bhagavan Antle riding an elephant, which is condemned by many animal specialists due to reasons of crushing and breaking of their backs as well as the probable development of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, rather than being informative about the impacts on the animals, the show focuses on the flamboyance of Antle’s lifestyle. Another footage captures an incident in which a worker at Joe Exotic’s zoo had to have her arm amputated after an accident from sticking her arm in a tiger’s cage. Not only does the mismanagement of animals harm the pets themselves, but it also puts society at risk. One other character on the show even attempts to justify the illegal breeding of his exotic tigers by claiming that they would go extinct otherwise. This demonstrates the self-serving motivations behind the zoo-keepers that appear throughout the series, highlighting their determination to profit from expanding the numbers of their pets. Otherwise, if they truly care for their animals, they would not be depriving the exotic cats of their freedom by imprisoning them in cages. Furthermore, the issue of treatment for zoo animals is further complicated with the recent finding of tigers being infected with coronavirus. Several news outlets (such as The New York Times and BBC) have reported on a tiger named Nadia at the Bronx Zoo in New York testing positive for the virus. Although it is difficult to verify the validity of this statement, it appears that Nadia did show symptoms of coronavirus, including the dry cough, and is speculated to have contracted it from a zoo keeper. This instance further corroborates the fact that possession of animals requires thorough expertise and sufficient resources, and hence animals cannot readily be held in captivity.
Tiger King and its characters shed light not only on the extensive market of breeding and selling cubs but the highly questionable morals from capitalizing on these animals that deserve to live independent lives, free from the hands of incompetent human beings. Lack of legal procedures in regulating the commercialization and unethical treatment of animals fails to end this persistence in animal abuse. Ultimately, the documentary works in favor of Joe Exotic, instead of the exotic animals.