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‘Tiger King’: The Too-Crazy-To-Be-True Cure For Quarantine Boredom

Joe Allen Maldonado-Passage (more commonly known as Joe Exotic).
Joe Allen Maldonado-Passage (more commonly known as Joe Exotic). By Courtesy of Netflix
By Harper R. Oreck, Contributing Writer

If you’ve logged onto Twitter or opened a news site in the past two weeks, you’ve probably heard of Joe Exotic. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix’s “Tiger King” has taken off as the escapist binge-watch of choice, while Joe Allen Maldonado-Passage (he goes by Joe Exotic), the mulleted, trigger-happy zoo owner at the center of the documentary series, has become a figure of public fascination. With much of the country stuck inside, Exotic, his larger-than-life crew of misfit employees, and his charismatic rivals offer exactly what viewers are looking for: an immersive world that, despite being nonfiction, is even more unbelievable than the one we live in.

Right off the bat, Exotic is a captivatingly unpredictable centerpiece to the show, strolling confidently into tiger cages in sequined animal-print outfits, threatening death to his enemies, and unabashedly plugging his country music career. Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin usher viewers into Exotic’s dramatic, messy universe with intimate footage of his personal breakdowns and hilarious coverage of the zoo’s haphazard operations, animated by a cast of off-kilter staff.

While the show’s subtitle promises “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” the first few episodes barely mention murder, instead attempting to make sense of the absurd lifestyles of the “exotic animal people” who share Exotic’s obsession. There’s Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a polygamist South Carolina zoo owner whose “extended family” of wives operates like a cult; Mario Tabraue, a former drug kingpin who runs a secretive exotic pet ranch in Miami; and, of course, Carole Baskin, a big cat conservationist and Exotic’s sworn enemy.

Baskin, an animal rights activist, is the perfect foil to Exotic; while he brings frenetic chaos to every situation, she never breaks her unnervingly calm facade. For years, Baskin has been drawing Exotic’s ire by accusing him of animal cruelty for breeding animal cubs and charging customers for “cub petting,” his most profitable tourist gimmick. While she calmly organizes fundraisers and attempts to shut down Exotic through legislative advocacy, commercial boycotts, and lawyers, Exotic responds with ad-hominem rage. He takes to his webshow to rail against Baskin and publicly accuse her of killing her husband, Don Lewis, decades before. Over the course of the series, their feud deepens and so does Exotic’s frenzied obsession: As Baskin’s efforts begin to succeed and his business crumbles, he pledges to drag her down with him.

The war between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin unfolds upon the backdrop of their already bizarre personal lives, which lend even more addictive watchability to the show. From the collapse of Joe Exotic’s polyamorous three-person marriage to his gubernatorial campaign (led by the manager of his local Walmart gun department) to, yes, Carole Baskin’s husband’s disappearance, the show’s greatest asset is its neverending stock of weird background characters. Many story elements, from elaborate government sting operations to staged arson to shady zoo investors, seem so outlandish even a Hollywood writer couldn’t dream them up.

Chaiklin and Goode artfully navigate this goldmine of tales, humanizing their subjects despite the absurdity of their dramas. They push beyond the caricature that Exotic projects, painting a gripping portrait of a man shaped by his financial troubles, neediness, and endless desire for power. Further, they shed light on America’s massive wildlife trafficking and tourism industry, which is facilitating the abuse and confinement of millions of animals at any given time. One of the most poignant elements of the show is its portrayal of animal conditions in different environments, including Carol Baskin’s “sanctuary,” which Exotic alleges is no better than a typical zoo. To a viewer, this allegation rings true; many of the show’s so-called animal rights advocates are potentially engaging in the same exploitation they protest, yet the show never really explores or calls out their hypocrisy — which is surprising, given that it’s one of the main points of contention between Exotic and Baskin.

For Goode, the question of a conservationist’s duty is also personal. A hotelier and filmmaker, he is a devoted turtle and tortoise conservationist, and in 2005 he founded the Behler Chelonian Center, a reserve for endangered turtle and tortoise species in Ojai, California.

While the show doesn’t overtly villainize its subjects, it thoroughly documents the mass mistreatment of animals occurring at their hands. If any viewers had planned to visit an exotic animal zoo anytime soon, the show likely changed their minds. In the midst of its shocking, can’t-look-away entertainment, “Tiger King” subtly telegraphs a key message: America’s wildlife trafficking and breeding industry must be shut down, even if it means Joe Exotic will need a new moniker.

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