The True Wild Animals of 'Tiger King'

Netflix's documentary series presents a menagerie of untamable characters.

Tiger King

Documentary filmmakers are sometimes hunters, not for sport but to feed the hunger of the consumer. Those of us with a taste for the wild game has a constant need for the next meal, and Netflix has the means to provide the biggest bites. They regularly offer binge-worthy documentary series with the most unbelievable true-crime cases and the most remarkable larger-than-life characters. And they’ve possibly peaked with Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Murder, a seven-part series with the greatest showcase of untamed personalities ever.

The titular figure of Tiger King is a man named Joe Exotic, owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma. He’s the sort of documentary character so extraordinary that he makes Christopher Guest movies seem bland and unimaginative. He’s a gay, gun-loving, animal-exploiting, country-music-singing, political-office-pursuing, mulleted, pierced, sparkly-dressed enigma, and he’s now in prison for a murder plot, as well as lesser charges concerning his tiger trade. He’s also not necessarily even the wildest of the humans on display in the series.

Every person in Tiger King has a crazy story, one that would have been enough for its own documentary feature. Just when you think an interviewed employee of Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo is completely ordinary and rational, the next episode points out that thing you missed about them previously: half their arm is missing because it was torn off by a tiger, and that person not only continued to still work for Joe afterward but rushed back to the job within a couple of days. As the series goes on, the outlandish cast stacks up, curiouser and curiouser.

And that’s even before you get to the characters who aren’t Joe Exotic’s close colleagues. There’s his arch-nemesis, Carole Baskin, a PETA-supported leader of an animal rescue and sanctuary organization who may or may not have killed her previous husband. There’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of another private zoo in Myrtle Beach who is portrayed as a cultish figure with a harem of women. And let’s not forget Mario Tabraue, the former drug kingpin said to be the model for the titular gangster of Brian DePalma’s Scarface who is also a collector of exotic animals while being one himself.

While many of them are unproven as such, at least in a court of law, the people who populate Tiger King consist of killers, arsonists, embezzlers, methheads — criminals of all kinds. The main figures of the series are also master manipulators to a ruthless degree. Nobody on screen is the hero of the story, nor is anyone the villain, as each character is as shady as the next if not shadier. Filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode never side with any of them, either in their feuds or their business dealings. But they also don’t parade them like a bunch of freaks.

Exoticizing human beings has been a part of documentary since the beginning, mostly in the name of anthropology and often with a level of exploitation. Today, there are fewer spotlights on indigenous groups as strange others, more exhibits of eccentrics among us. But the range of how people are depicted is just as wide as it was back then — some are empathically appreciated like your Nanooks and your Beales and the original Catfish, Angela Wesselman. Others are served up on a platter to be scrutinized and laughed at, like African tribes were in the past for their unfamiliar customs, or more recently with such villainized documentary icons as Billy Mitchell and Joyce McKinney.

The real people of Tiger King are definitely ripe for finger-pointing as they shock and amaze audiences, but they’re not thinly characterized and are given about as much depth and respect as they allow, despite the circumstances of their being narrativized in a documentary story. Some viewers will find Joe to be a disagreeable person, while others will see him as a victim deserving of exoneration. Ethical concerns about the treatment of the lot in Tiger King are still up for debate, of course, not unlike the question of whether any of them are doing wrong by the animals they own and traffic.

The documentary screen will often function as a cage around its subjects, but some of these people are naturally bigger personalities and wilder creatures than others, and no matter the intent they’ll come off as more confined, exposed, and imposed upon. Fortunately for the characters of Tiger King, it was helped by or perhaps was more acceptable to its notable executive producers: Chris Smith, who has tastefully given us unforgettable stories and characters in such films as American Movie and Netflix’s Fyre Festival doc Fyre; and Fisher Stevens, who has proven to be considerate with wild humans and animals alike with Crazy Love, Bright Lights, and The Cove. They’ve outdone themselves this time, is all, with their most epically abundant human zoo yet.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.