“We Have A Tiger Crisis In This Country”: Tiger King and the American Public
It’s 2006, I am thirteen years old, helping my mom with an event for work. It rains, and the city cancels the event. As I wander around the fire department, waiting for my mom to drive me home, I come upon a tiger in a cage. Everyone seems to know the man who owns the tiger, but Googling “tiger man pinellas park” now, all I find are articles about Tiger King.
When I first heard about Tiger King—Netflix’s most recent true crime docuseries—I thought it would be a fun little romp through the life of a crazy hillbilly man and his big cats. I thought, “this ought to be interesting”. I thought, “Netflix’s Ted Bundy series was well done, this should be too”. Already I should’ve known. I read a few tweets. Saw the hashtag #FreeJoeExotic. I read an article on Independent about the rampant misogyny in the series. I learned that Big Cat Rescue—an organization just across the bridge from my hometown—was involved. Then I had to watch Tiger King.
At this point, with all the tabs I have open about this, I’ve never been so glad to have two monitors.
Joe Schreibvogel AKA Joe Exotic
Joe Exotic was the owner and proprietor of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He opened the park in 1999 as the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park for his brother, killed in 1997 by a drunk driver. Since then, the park has changed hands; Jeff Lowe purchased the park in 2016.
Joe Exotic’s love of big cats and exotic animals began in West Palm Beach, Florida, where we was undergoing physical therapy after driving his car off a bridge. His neighbor was the owner of Lion Country Safari, and would bring home baby animals to raise. When Joe began his own park, he met with exotic animal owners like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari, for tips and tricks. As Joe stated, he learned from Antle how to “market the zoo and make money from the zoo.”
In the early 2000s, Joe performed magic shows in malls, featuring his tigers. He would load the animals into a semi-truck and “cart[ed] them around the Midwest,” as told by John Finlay, Joe’s husband. He continued, stating “I can’t tell you where we went, only that I’ve been to 38 states.”
Joe claims he and Carole Baskin have been “fighting over tigers since 2006”. Later in 2016, Joe attempted to hire a hit-man to murder Carole Baskin. In 2019 Joe was found guilty of “two counts of murder-for-hire, eight violations of the Lacey Act, and nine of the Endangered Species Act”. In January 2020 he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Carole Baskin is the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. Baskin and her second husband, Don Lewis, formed Big Cat Rescue in 1992. She “expressed an interest in saving cats when she was nine,” and at fifteen moved “back and forth between Florida and Bangor, Maine, sleeping under parked cars”. Baskin worked odd jobs through her teens, where she met her first husband, Michael Murdock. She got into real estate when she met her second husband, Don Lewis.
Baskin is considered an animal rights activist, and has done work to shut down roadside zoos and end private ownership of exotic animals. In February 2019 she helped introduce the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which works to “prohibit the possession of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, or any hybrid of these species by individuals who are not licensed by the US Department of Agriculture”.
Animal Abuse in Tiger King
Let’s jump right into it: cruelty to animals is the “infliction by omission or commission by humans of suffering or harm upon any non-human”. There are “900 to 2,000 cases” of animal hoarding every year in the US; there’s no real way to track animal abuse because cases are rarely reported. According to the Humane Society, “cases of animal abuse are not compiled by state or federal agencies, making it difficult to calculate just how common they are”.
Cub petting is “the practice of using baby animals, like tigers, as photo props for paying customers,” according to The Wildcat Sanctuary. In watching Tiger King, I know for a fact that this is a practice that both Joe Exotic and Doc Antle pursue and have pursued for years. In their article, The Wildcat Sanctuary lays out just who suffers from this practice:
- Adult female tigers are “speed bred” in order to produce more offspring in a year than they would in the wild. A wild tiger has a litter about every three years, staying with her cubs for up to two years. In roadside zoos and private ownership, the cubs are taken “days, even hours, after they are born”.
- The cubs are taken from their mothers and passed around through groups of strangers for hours at a time. According to The Wildcat Sanctuary, this can lead to “dehydration and psychological stress” and “illness, as their immature immune systems are not equipped to cope with diseases they may be exposed to”.
- The public is often duped into believing that “by paying to pet, hold, or feed the babies,” they’re helping conservation efforts. Often, owners of roadside zoos claim that breeding in captivity is “helping save endangered species”. Most tigers in roadside zoos are hybrids: “a cross between different subspecies or tigers” such as a “Bengal tiger crossed with Malayan tiger”. The Wildcat Sanctuary states that “introducing hybrid genetics into wild ecosystems violates international best practices as it can negatively impact wild populations. The continued breeding of hybrid cats offers no conservation value, and this misleading message dilutes the impact of true conservation efforts”.
“Nothing More Than a Bill”
I feel it’s imperative to include that entire last paragraph because it’s so resounding. “The continued breeding of hybrid cats offers no conservation value”. Joe Exotic claimed to be teaching people about “saving the rain forest” by having people interact with tiger cubs; there are a few scenes in the show where he sets a tiger cub in a circle of people laying on the ground and lets it wander around them.
Exotic can be quoted saying “From the time they’re 4 weeks old to the time they’re 16 weeks old you can profit 100,000 dollars off that cub”. Maybe he loves his animals; maybe he does have a deep connection to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being abused and exploited.
Tim Stark, owner of Wildlife in Need in Indiana and tiger breeder, says it “best”, summing up the eventuality of cub petting: “Once a tiger gets through the stage when you can use them they’re nothing more than a bill then”.
Breeding for Profit
Bottom line, Joe Exotic breeds for profit. As does Doc Antle; as does Tim Stark, who claims when you’re about to run out of something “you make more”. The difference between just “making more” and protecting the animals we do have is that one act puts money in someone’s pocket, and the other actually aids in conservation. A roadside zoo is not a sanctuary; at the end of the day, the cats are just big striped dollar signs. Tim Stark says it again: “I bought shitloads [of tigers] from Joe, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of them”.
Carole Baskin is not free from guilt; in her early days with Don Lewis, the two bought and bred bobcats and lynx. She narrated a VHS about keeping exotic cats as pets. The difference between Baskin and men like Exotic, Antle, and Stark: she owned up to her mistakes. She realized what she was doing and changed the way she did business, building an accredited sanctuary instead of a big cat breeding mill.
Space to Roam
I’ll just put it out there in plain terms: the GW Zoo is 16 acres for over 200 cats and is officially registered as a rendering facility; this is something we don’t learn on Tiger King. Big Cat Rescue is 67 acres for a total of 51 cats. More land and less animals means more space for those animals to live in. This means bigger enclosures, and more deliberate landscaping to match the animals’ natural habitat.
It comes down to responsible maintenance; is it responsible to cram 200 big cats onto 16 acres? What does that say to their quality of life? Tigers need “400 square miles of territory in the wild”; no conditions in captivity will ever be adequate for them.
In an interview with Variety, filmmaker Eric Goode states, “If you keep more than 230 tigers, it’s like having 230 children, you don’t really love them, you’re just collecting them. He [Exotic] wanted to be the guy with the most tigers—the tiger king”.
Joe Exotic fed his cats “cows that died on feedlots,” roadkill, and expired meat from grocery stores. He said, “I can feed a tiger for 3,000 dollars a year”. In comparison, Doc Antle spends 10,000 dollars a year to feed each tiger. I’m not saying his practices are any better than Exotic’s, but at least his tigers—allegedly—don’t eat expired hot dogs.
What’s Wrong With Private Ownership?
Private ownership, breeding for profit, and using exotic animals in roadside zoos is and always will be dangerous, exploitative, and abusive. The dangers made themselves known in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011; Terry Thompson, who owned over fifty large exotic animals, released them into the community before committing suicide. The police gunned down the animals before they caused serious mayhem in the town. The article cites the facility as a “wild animal preserve,” which I will translate to private ownership and animal hoarding. Sheriff Matt Lutz was quoted as saying “These animals were on the move and were showing aggressive behavior”.
Around 75 deaths are attributed to exotic animal attacks from 1990 to 2011. Born Free USA includes over 2,800 incidents in their Exotic Animal Incident Database. These incidents can happen anywhere, even at accredited zoological facilities and sanctuaries; but it is when exotic animals are exploited for profit and entertainment that the incidents happen the most. Because of cases like this, Garvin County Sheriff Rhodes stated, “One of the things that keeps me awake at night is the park [GW Zoo]”.
The Difference Between a Sanctuary and a Roadside Zoo
Accredited sanctuaries and zoological facilities have a common goal: conservation. They aim to protect the animals that we already have, not making more to spend their lives in cages and people’s backyards. The International Fund for Animal Welfare says it best: “True sanctuaries do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in”. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) accredits only true sanctuaries.
IFAW continues, stating “Roadside menageries and breeding operations, sadly, often call themselves “sanctuaries,” when they are in fact perpetuating the inhumane, dangerous trade in captive big cats…” In defense of her sanctuary, Carole Baskin states, “The reason we have cats in cages is to give them a safe place to live until they die”. Realistically, the cats must be in cages, for their safety and the safety of the public. The least we can do is mimic their natural habitat to give them comfortable living quarters.
The Tiger King’s Treatment of People
The show takes us through one of four mobile homes that Exotic’s employees live in: Rick Kirkham, Exotic’s former producer, narrates the footage, telling viewers, “the washing machine didn’t work, the water didn’t run in the bathroom, one air conditioner for the entire thing. It could be 120 degrees in there at night. That was the nice one”. The homes are full of garbage, there’s only a mattress on the floor, a cardboard box for a nightstand, and the camera crew finds a rat in the chest of drawers.
Tiger King paints Exotic as a savior of people living off the grid, on the fringe of society; recent convicts, the homeless, drug addicts. One scene shows him offering a woman a job and giving her money. This goes back to the old adage of the 21st century: if you’re really out there to do good, you won’t film yourself doing it. But Joe Exotic filmed everything. He essentially took advantage of people who had nowhere else to go; of course they’re going to stay in a trailer with no AC and rats in the drawers, because the only other option is out on the streets.
Eating Off the Meat Truck
In speaking about the living conditions of Exotic’s employees, Rick Kirkham tells us this; “Joe would let them pick out what they wanted first and they’d carry bags of this expired meat and foods back to their mobile home, and that’s what they ate, because that’s all they had”. When Exotic opened his pizza joint in the park, Erik Cowie, head keeper, admitted that the meat on the pizzas came from the meat truck. I’m just going to leave it at that.
In 2013, keeper Saff Saffery—who in the series is constantly referred to by a name and pronouns he doesn’t identify with—got his arm mauled by one of Exotic’s tigers. He decided to amputate his arm at the elbow instead of two years of reconstructive surgery. Exotic’s response: “I am never going to financially recover from this”. There are scenes of various other accidents; none so horrific as getting one’s arm nearly bitten off, but scenes of keepers jumped on; Exotic dragged around an enclosure by his foot and beating the tiger in the face with his crutch. What it comes down to is irresponsibility around big cats.
Misanthropy and Narcissism
When asked why he always carries a sidearm, if it’s “for the cats,” Exotic replies it’s “for people”. He also claimed that if anyone tried to take his cats away from him it would “be a small Waco”. If that’s not some sort of misanthropy I don’t know what is. Exotic has a proven hatred of Carole Baskin; a pure hatred of people is not that far out of the realm of possibility.
Joe Exotic is, without a doubt, a narcissist. We’ve seen it before, been duped by it, most often on reality TV and in politics (and, in some cases, those two overlap). Psychology Today considers narcissism a spectrum; it’s much more than someone being too full of themselves. PT continues,
“[Narcissism] is not a surplus of self-esteem, but more accurately encompasses a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a sense of specialness and a desire to be the center of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status…Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment”.
“They Felt Terrorized By Him”
Sound like someone you know? Joe Exotic created Joe Exotic TV; became involved with a reality TV producer; started a very public feud with someone several states away; made a bid for president in 2016; ran for governor of Oklahoma; he wants to be noticed in a way that puts other people at risk. Tiger King “never really moves away” from Joe Exotic, states an article at Them., “and that narrow focus is precisely what has allowed his cult of personality to flourish online…”
People love him because he’s gay, because of his aesthetic, his music, and his over-the-top antics. He’s quickly become a cultural icon, glossing over the more heinous things he’s done even in front of a camera. There is videographic evidence of him sending snakes to Carole Baskin in the mail, and yet the American public worships him because he likes to wear sequined tiger-striped shirts, or something.
In the Variety interview, Eric Goode says of Exotic, “Joe absolutely victimized the people that worked for him and almost unanimously, with the exception of a few, they felt terrorized by him and abused by him”. He ends his comment by saying, “…I hope that resonated in the series”. The problem that many are having is that it just didn’t resonate.
Coercing Straight Men Into Marriage
Exotic presents himself as a sympathetic character to many because he struggled with his sexuality, eventually leading to his suicide attempt. This is a relatable struggle, one that a lot of people don’t overcome, one that can plague someone for the rest of their life. In this way, I believe Joe Exotic resonated with people. But I do not believe he is free of fault just because of this. The article on Them. stated it perfectly: “Joe Exotic is not your gay icon”. The article continues, “Tiger King also strongly implies that he [Exotic] used access to exotic animals and drugs to groom two much-younger (and ostensibly straight) men, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, into marrying him”. The video of his three-way marriage has been available on YouTube, but only recently, with the documentary, has it gained a larger viewing.
“Not a Life to Live”
Exotic coerced two straight men into a relationship with the promise of cars, guns, and drugs. He even admitted to Eric Goode that he “fell in love with straight guys”. He groomed two 19-year-old boys and essentially took their youth from them. This calls into play Travis Maldonado’s death: was it really a tragic accident, or was it intentional?
The series shows Maldonado punching the side of a truck saying Exotic doesn’t listen to his problems, doesn’t care about him. He says, “He [Exotic] maybe asks me what’s wrong but he only listens for five seconds before he walks out on me”. Jeff Lowe, businessman and current owner of the park, is not a reliable source by any stretch of the imagination. But there is a moment when he makes a point; he states, “He [Maldonado] was trapped here in Wynnewood, a boy from Cali, and Joe kept him pumped full of weed to keep him from waking up and realizing this isn’t a life to live”. There was meth and weed involved in every aspect of their lives; coupled with mental health issues and an abusive relationship, this could lead to an accident like Maldonado’s.
The casual misogyny in Tiger King has been glossed over in reviews and responses that I’ve seen; the show itself glosses over it, never once addressing it by name. The most prominent perpetrators are Joe Exotic and Doc Antle.
Exotic has his blatant hatred of Carole Baskin: sending her death threats, mailing her snakes on her birthday, blowing up a mannequin named “Carole”, among other offenses (most notably, obviously, the one he went to jail for). Doc Antle, meanwhile, dabbles in more psychological, not outright violent misogyny. He recruits teenage girls to work with him, shaping their views of the world, himself, and exotic animal handling. He makes them change their names; this wipes out their very identities in order to mold them into something that fits his idea of what a woman should be. Barbara Fisher, a former apprentice of Doc Antle, states; “Doc said ‘you’re this garbage person but if you listen to me I’ll make you great.'” As for their living conditions, Fisher states, “We lived in these terrible horse stalls, basically. With sliding doors with bars on them. It was full of cockroaches”.
In an article on Independent, one of the very first sources I read on Tiger King, Kathleen N Walsh addresses the misogyny in the series in depth. She hopes “that we take violence against women seriously,” but that after watching Tiger King, “it really doesn’t seem like we do”.
Don Lewis’s Disappearance
What ups the ante on this “true crime” docuseries is the mysterious disappearance of Carole Baskin’s second husband, Don Lewis. This essentially overshadows the rampant animal abuse. In this case, I recommend reading the section on Don’s disappearance on the Big Cat Rescue website; here, Carole Baskin refutes Tiger King and addresses in full detail the accusations against her. There is incredible detail in this article that Baskin seemingly doesn’t get the chance to explain in the series.
The only unbiased source I think we speak to in this series is Rick Kirkham. Even though he worked for Exotic, he simply states the facts of what he saw and experienced as producer. Everyone else we talk to about Exotic or animal handling: biased, because they do the same thing that he does. Doc Antle: chauvinist. Tim Stark: 120 counts of animal abuse against him and he’s being interviewed like he has something to say other than praises for Joe Exotic. Of course they’re going to tell us Joe Exotic did nothing wrong with his animals; they’re all treating their animals the same way. Tiger King takes the animal abusers’ word as law. We, as an audience, have been duped in the name of our true-crime obsession.
Rachel Nuwer has an article on Longreads that addresses Joe Exotic, Tiger King, and big cat trafficking; Nuwer has spent “the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world”. Having read her article, I believe she is a rare reliable source in this manufactured environment of hearsay and opinions.
What Went Wrong With Tiger King
Tiger King did not address things the way they should’ve been; it glossed over or made laughable serious elements for the sake of good television. Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode had a vision, and they talk about what they wanted for the show in their Variety interview. The problem is that it just didn’t resonate in the ways they wanted. They focused too much on the characters and not their acts. Chaiklin admits, “…he’s [Exotic] an amazing character for a film, but he’s certainly not an amazing partner, by any means”.
Good Content of Bad People
It seems that all that concerns the filmmakers is what’s going to make great content—admittedly, a pressing concern when making a film. They admit that Exotic’s employees were abused, that the cats were abused; but they turn right around and talk about how great the footage was, how well Exotic’s personality worked for TV. In the Variety interview, Goode had an idea of what he wanted to bring to light with this series; they wanted to expose the big cat industry, but they just didn’t do any of that. Chaiklin even seems to lean toward that antihero mentality when it comes to Exotic.
The one episode about Don Lewis’s disappearance was mostly interviews with people giving their own opinions on what they thought happened. No concrete evidence, no proof, not even from the police detective. Something went wrong, sure, but everyone was so quick to blame Baskin that no real investigating was done. This series only adds fuel to the fire of Exotic’s hatred for Baskin; this spread to its audience over the course of the show.
Eric Goode states that he had a hard time getting these people to speak to him for his series; yet, once he gets them, it seems like they don’t want to stop talking about things they have no authority on. Goode says in his Variety interview, “Unlike accredited zoos like the Bronx Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, these are private menageries, and these people are frightened and there is an existential fear that they are going to be shut down by the government, by PETA, by HSUS [Humane Society of the United States], by animal rights groups. So they, generally, are very guarded”. These people are afraid because they know they’re doing something they shouldn’t be. “Paranoid” is a better word for it.
As for the Tiger King audience who holds Joe Exotic in high regard, Goode says it himself; “…for people who are looking at the series, saying Joe is an antihero or Joe should be released from jail—Joe did real wrong”. As much as I disagree with Eric Goode’s practices when it comes to Tiger King, I’m inclined to agree with this.