“Tiger King” cares more about shock value than big cat conservation

By Emma Campbell

Elm Staff Writer

In the midst a global pandemic, rapidly crashing economy, and a time in which Gal Gadot singing off-key to John Lennon’s “Imagine” is meant to boost our spirits, the internet’s new obsession with a seven-part docuseries about big cat breeding (among other things) should not come as a surprise.

“Tiger King,”which Netflix describes as a tale of “murder, mayhem, and madness,” follows self-proclaimed “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet” Joe Exotic as he goes from breeding big cats in Oklahoma to getting sentenced to 22 years in prison for his alleged involvement in a murder-for-hire scheme. The series barreled its way to notoriety within hours of its release, inspiring podcasts, Twitter threads, a post-series “where-are-they-now?” episode hosted by Joel McHale, and an upcoming TV show that Kate McKinnon is already slated to star in.

The world has certainly proven itself entertained by Exotic, his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, and his kooky cast of employees, husbands, and hired hitmen. “Tiger King” seems to have it all —polygamy, attempted murder, disappearing spouses, arson, and cults. Still, there is one major element that is missing from the misnomer docuseries — and that would the tigers.

Tiger King gives more screen time to Joe Exotic’s sequined, animal-print outfits than it does to the animals he keeps in cages. Apart from a half-hearted “save-the-tigers” montage at the show’s conclusion, big cats serve as mere padding for a show that already has too much going on. They are good for transitional shots and backgrounds for talking heads, but that is about it. The show never gives them a clear-cut advocate who can sway the audience to the right side of conservation. PETA representatives only give interviews relating to the crimes of Joe Exotic, and while most of these misdoings are tiger-related, it is made clear that none of the legal proceedings were intended to protect the animals as much as they were to put Exotic behind bars.

There are far more tigers living in captivity than there are living in the wild. According to the World Wildlife Organization, 5,000 tigers exist in U.S. captivity with approximately 3,200 in the wild. This statistic alone is sobering enough to springboard viewers into an entire episode dedicated to big cat conversation, but instead, Tiger King directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin give us one filled with Joe Exotic’s failed political career. One might make for better TV, but the other is certainly more morally correct. Could viewers not have been granted both?

Despite its focus on human greed and cruelty, “Tiger King”is, objectively, a blast to meme about. Even several weeks after its release, viewers continue to find endless enjoyment in tweeting about everything from the rumored murder of Baskin’s second husband to Joe Exotic’s skin-crawling, can-never-be-unheard country music.

In the middle of the COVID-19 catastrophe, people have been turning to television for solace. They want escape, not guilt-inducing tiger publicity. The sad truth is “Tiger King”viewers do not want to know about the tigers being bred, thrown in cages, and disposed of under their very noses. And given the amount of attention the docuseries pays to these cruelties; the directors know that.

In addition to not spending enough time raising awareness about wildcat conservation, the docuseries is quick to bite the hand that feeds the tigers, so to speak. Carole Baskin, with all her animal-print leggings and fuzzy cat-eared hats, has been labelled a hypocrite by fans who claim her mistreatment of animals is on par with Joe Exotic’s. Their main evidence is the documentary footage of small, slovenly enclosures at Baskin’s sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue. In fact, the smallest cages on Baskin’s property are 1,200 square feet, a size considered humane by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

“Tiger King”has piqued the attention of other documentary makers, many of whom share concerns about the misguidance viewers are getting from the sensationalized docuseries.

“I believe film and TV are the most powerful medium there is,” Glen Zipper, a documentary producer and writer, said to The New York Times. “If we’re delivering something to you that is factually inaccurate — particularly when it has to do with something that is critically important — that ultimately could be quite dangerous.”

There is something to be said for the addictiveness of “Tiger King” — it is equal parts fun and outrageous, with a motley crew of weirdos wild enough to make viewers’ eyes water for fear of blinking, and missing a moment of perfect absurdity.

We are allowed to be entertained by Joe’s bad music videos and Carole’s all-too frequent exclamations of “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens!” But maybe we should consider the damage we may unknowingly be inflicting on conservation efforts as we idolize — ironically or not — a man known for his cruelty to animals that never have belonged to him in the first place.

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