Netflix's "Tiger King" is an enthralling yet humane look at when the outlandish becomes an obsession

In this unbelievable docuseries, a rivalry between lovers of big cats escalates into a murder-for-hire plot

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 20, 2020 7:32PM (EDT)

Tiger King (Netflix)
Tiger King (Netflix)

There's a certain beauty to stories that are so strange, so detached from our average collective reality, they just have to be true. I live for the moments in media — whether it's when Jan Broberg was abducted again by Robert Berchtold in "Abducted in Plain Sight," or when we find out that there are two Jerrys in the "McMillions" universe — when you just have to sit back and remark (or text or live-tweet): "I just can't believe it." 

But over the last few weeks, we've entered a time that truly feels unbelievable. A lot of us are alone and lonely, isolated and scared. Notice the Netflix Top 10 list right now? Many viewers are passing the time by streaming the series "Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak" and the 1995 film "Outbreak." 

And I understand why many of us turn to content like that in times of crisis— to cope, to plan, to look for happy endings — but when you want to take a breather, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" needs to be in your queue. 

Netlflix's new docuseries follows a group of people, all of whom live on the fringe of their respective communities, but share one thing in common: their obsession with big cats. Tigers, lions, literal ligers — all of it. The main character is the self-styled Joe Exotic (nee Joseph Maldonado-Passage), a gay, tiger-owning magician who, over the course of the series, flashes dozens of guns and equally as many peices of body jewelry.

He, like all interesting characters, has an arch-nemesis, Carole Baskin, the founder and CEO of "Big Cat Rescue." Carole feels Joe's zoo — which doubles, at various times, as a theme park, a recording studio, and a political headquarters — isn't a sufficient home for the animals. Joe feels Carole's big cat sanctuary is just like a zoo, just hedged in more mainstream-friendly terminology and messaging. 

Both of their identities are completely wound up in their ownership of big cats. Several of Joe's husbands were employees at his zoo. Carole cultivates, as one detractor puts it, a sort of "Mother Teresa of Tigers" persona and has an enviable leopard-print legging collection. Over the course of seven episodes, the tensions between the two rise, leading to lawsuits,online propaganda campaigns (including a shocking scene where Joe somehow gets ahold of Carole's diary and reads it on Facebook Live), and an eventual murder-for-hire plot. Yes, murder . . . over who is the king of the big cat jungle.

Weighing in on this mess are other (often leather-clad?) exotic animal owners who, through their own stories, introduce us to cults, sex scams, drug abuse, a little circus history and what happens when appropriate precautions aren't taken when caring for big cats. While these inclusions could have easily resulted in an uneven mosaic of bizarre vignettes, "Tiger King" filmmakers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, masterfully weave together all the weirdness into a taut portrait of a world that is simultaneously utterly singular and easily recognizable. 

In Joe and Carole's feud — and Joe's eventual, unsuccessful jump into politics — we see shadows of familiar election year political messaging and rhetoric. Underneath Joe's tawdry persona, we catch glimpses of his uncertain, closeted years as a socially isolated gay teenager. In the tangential stories of the other big cat owners, we see people who, for whatever reason, don't feel they are recognized as having a memorable identity: if the choice is being forgettable or being The Big Cat Guy ™, bring on the life-size plush tigers and Akubra hats that seem to abound in this world. 

"Tiger King" has some imperfections; there could have definitely been some more objective discussion of animal mistreatment, abuse, and the staggering fact that there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than in the wild worldwide to ground the series. But any shortcomings are eclipsed by its heart, and I mean this in the best, broadest sense. The outlandish world presented by "Tiger King" is funny, gross, frustrating, contemplative, and ultimately sympathetic. This is a story of animals, yes, but it's also a story of what makes us human. 

"Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" is now streaming on Netflix.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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