Why Are We Rooting for Tiger King’s Joe Exotic?

The controversial star of Netflix’s latest documentary is hard to watch – but harder to stop watching

Ever wondered what happens when you take a narcissist, add big cats, meth and guns, and invite a film crew to record the inevitable descent into chaos? Wonder no more. The Netflix docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020) follows the trials and tribulations of Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, aka the Tiger King: a 57-year-old self-declared ‘gun-toting gay redneck’ and former owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma. The central drama revolves around Joe’s fixation with an animal rights advocate named Carole Baskin. Carole runs a tiger sanctuary and is out to shut Joe down for keeping big cats in abysmal conditions. In response he wages a sordid campaign against her, one that involves firing live rounds at a sex doll and posting the footage online, writing songs about how much he hates her and eventually – spoiler alert – getting tangled up in a botched attempt to assassinate her. In January, he was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison on 17 charges of animal abuse and two counts of murder for hire.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

Joe Exotic in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

Along the way Tiger King conveys some astonishing facts. Did you know there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are alive in the wild? I didn’t. But don’t mistake this for an animal rights exposé. Tiger King channels the trashy energy of a Nicolas Cage tribute movie. The mood is less ‘someone ought to stop that guy,’ more ‘put him on a t-shirt, what a ledge!’ The major draws for directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin were clearly the grotesque personalities, spectacular dramas and big outfits that comprise the US cat scene. From his eyebrow piercing, handlebar moustache and bleached mullet, to the satin leopard print shirts, leather Stetsons and priest collars, Joe is aesthetic dynamite. 

Tiger King is the latest in a line of high-end Netflix ‘whacko’ documentaries – following in the footsteps of Wild Wild Country (2018) and Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019) – in which grim tales with eccentric characters are expertly edited into ratings gold. Nobody loves attention like a narcissist, and there is a long history of people with delusions of grandeur veering toward any camera they can get themselves in front of, providing directors with ample material to play with. Goode and Chaiklin are happy to indulge Joe’s desire for the limelight in exchange for gleaning every catchphrase, meme-able look and outrageous plot-twist. Did he really burn down an alligator pen in order to get rid of incriminating evidence? Run for president, employing a gun salesman for Walmart as his campaign manager? Hand out condoms with his face printed on them? Wear a padlock through the end of his penis? What won’t this crazy gay hick do!

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

Carole Baskin in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

The problem is, from Michael Jackson to Jimmy Saville, ramping up the eccentricity has a way of bamboozling audiences and turning abusers into cartoons. The big cat scene is a hot bed of men with volatile egos, among whom keeping dangerous and expensive animals facilitates a fantasy of sexual prowess. As succinctly put by Jeff Lowe – a conman dressed like an OAP Eminem impersonator who eventually swindles Joe out of his zoo – ‘a little pussy gets you a lot of pussy’. Jeff has a history of smuggling tiger cubs into casino hotel rooms, trading petting sessions for sex. Resorting to stuffing live, endangered animals into wheelie suitcases in the hope of getting laid? Clearly, he didn’t get the memo explaining that when it comes to sex appeal, desperation isn’t a good look. He’s not the only one. 

Joe’s friend and fellow walking hazard sign Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle is living proof that any white dude with a soul patch who attaches the Hindi word for ‘deity’ to his name should be given an extra wide berth. Antle employs numerous women to work on his zoo. According to former employee Barbara ‘Bala’ Fisher, the job involves working 24/7, dressing in skimpy animal print clothes picked out by your boss, as well as being treated as a sexual possession and pressured into cosmetic surgeries. Joe Exotic may come off as more likeable than Antle – Goode and Chaiklin portray him as batshit rather than calculated – but their motivations are much of a muchness. For years he kept two young husbands on site, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, buying their attachment with drugs, guns and vehicles, controlling their movements and feeding them the same out-of-date Walmart meat he fed to the caged animals. 

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

Jeff Lowe in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

The success of Tiger King rests upon Goode and Chaiklin’s ability to turn a cult leader into a cult hero. They make it easy to become enamoured with their star turn. Fans have been donning comedy wigs and guns for Instagram’s #TigerKingChallenge. Even the UK’s Royal Academy of Art has got in on the joke. This March, the institution tweeted an image of Joe inserted into Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891). With all the lols it’s easy to overlook the casualties. Carole Baskin, who (like her or not) Joe tried to have killed. The animals, disposed of after they got too big to hire out for cuddles, whose bones were discovered buried on his property. Kelci ‘Saff’ Saffery, the worker paid piss-poor wages who had his armed ripped off by a tiger. Travis Maldonado, visibly depressed and in the grip of addiction, who died in 2017, aged 23, when he accidentally shot himself. Joe Exotic: what a ledge, indeed.

Main image: Joe Exotic in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, 2020, production still. Courtesy: Netflix 

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London, UK. She is an editor at The White Review. Her book Double-Tracking was published by Carcanet Press in October 2019.

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