“Tiger King” was probably always destined to become a hit. How could a docuseries with exotic animals, polygamy, guns, murder conspiracies, meth and genital piercings be anything but?
That the show just happened to come out on Netflix last Friday — as Americans were self-isolating at home because of the coronavirus outbreak — has only propelled it to greater popularity. Since its release on Friday, “Tiger King” has occupied the No. 1 spot on the streaming platform’s top 10 ranking. Memes about its colorful cast of characters have proliferated on Twitter and Instagram. Kim Kardashian West, Sam Smith and Awkwafina are just some of the celebrities who have said they’re watching.
If you’re one of the scant few who’ve yet to binge the seven-part series, allow us to explain.
Filmed over the course of five years, “Tiger King” centers largely on Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, the owner of a roadside wild cat zoo in rural Oklahoma. Joe Exotic bears a resemblance to Bret Michaels, carries a pistol on his hip, has a penchant for sequins and piercings, and at one point had two much younger husbands. He’s also obsessed with being famous, broadcasting the goings-on at the zoo via his own YouTube channel, where he spews hatred about his nemesis, Carole Baskin. Baskin, who has waist-length blond hair and only wears animal prints, runs her own cat park in Florida — though she bills it as a rescue facility — and opposes Joe’s practice of breeding lions and tigers and keeping them in captivity for profit.
Eventually, the sparring between the two turns more serious: Suffice it to say, Joe Exotic, now 57, is in federal prison. We won’t give the ending away completely, but he was sentenced to 22 years behind bars for charges related to Baskin, as well as killing some of his own tigers.
There are plenty of other wild, ethically dubious characters in “Tiger King.” Self-proclaimed cat lover Doc Antle operates the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina with the aid of beautiful young women with whom he also has romantic relationships. Supposed wealthy businessman Jeff Lowe swoops in to bail Joe Exotic’s park out of financial ruin but ultimately ends up taking it over himself.
It’s a lot. To help us sift through the chaotic world of “Tiger King,” we sought out its co-directors and writers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, who called on Tuesday from their respective quarantines in California and Woodstock, N.Y.
How do you feel about the fact that the series’ release has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chaiklin: I hope that the series can provide a bit of entertainment and distraction for people, but more than anything, we’re glad that people are staying at home. Not because of the show, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s completely uncharted territory for us, and it’s a dangerous time.
Goode: It underscores that reality is stranger than fiction. We have a captive audience watching captive cats. I’m the last person to talk to about statistics and ratings. Obviously, I’m happy that people are seeing it. We worked on it for a very long time, and it’s very rewarding.
Eric, in 2012 the New Yorker profiled you because you’re a herpetophile, and you’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to save endangered turtles and tortoises. Why didn’t you include your own animal obsession in “Tiger King?”
Goode: I guess you could say I’m a closeted animal person, because a lot of my life I did it in secrecy. I was always fascinated with exotic animals, particularly reptiles, from the age of 6 when I got a pet tortoise. Later in life, I started an organization that works to save tortoises and turtles that are threatened, but in full disclosure, I still always had a fascination with people who kept animals. I wasn’t intimately involved in the big cat world, but there’s really one degree of separation between these different subcultures — primates, birds, tropical fish, whatever it is.
How would you characterize “tiger people”?
Goode: I would say the big cat people see tigers as sort of a status symbol, as you would a Ferrari or fancy car collection. They have the animals to elevate their position. It makes them special.
Are the subjects in “Tiger King” a dying breed? Don’t you feel like there’s more public consciousness about animals in captivity nowadays? People posing with tigers in dating apps often get shamed.
Chaiklin: The world of exotic animal people has been very secretive because the more they’re out of the limelight, the less subject they are to regulations. But there’s this crazy thing that’s happened: In order to monetize these animals, they’ve all begun to engage in social media. But there’s also a shifting consciousness that these are sentient beings, so I think it is a world that is coming to an end, in many ways. Even regular zoos have much stricter regulations now. There’s a large percentage of Americans who say they would no longer take their children to a zoo.
Goode: There is a whole new disturbing trend of exotic animal tourism. People can monetize photographs with elephants on a beach or tigers or large pythons or dolphins.
Why are people so obsessed with taking photos with wild animals?
Chaiklin: They’re beautiful, they’re powerful, and we’re so disconnected from nature and all these other species on the planet. I think we have some inherent instinct to be drawn to it — it’s just been perverted, the way people go about it. When you grow up and the only time you see an animal is in a cage, you don’t really understand what that animal is as a wild animal. It doesn’t behave the same way, or raise its young the same way or fight the same way. All the things that define what that creature is have been stripped from it.
While filming all of these baby tigers, were you ever tempted to cuddle with one yourself?
Chaiklin: Most of the tigers we were around were subjected to abject cruelty. We saw babies being torn from their mothers and screaming. They’d get sick from being handled so much and get ringworm and mange. It was disturbing. Are they cute? Yes. Were there temptations to cuddle or touch? Yes. But it was very clear that it was not something positive.
Goode: As for the tourists who patronize these places — I think there’s a parallel between guns and animals. You can buy an AR-15 in Oklahoma just like you can buy a tiger easily. What you do in Oklahoma with tigers in these roadside zoos would be frowned on if it opened in the L.A. basin or New York. I think it’s a lack of education. And people believe we should be able to have a tiger, because this is America — who should stop us?
Some of the subjects in “Tiger King” have not been pleased with their depictions. Carole said you sold the project to her as “Blackfish,” but in the end its sole goal was “being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers.”
Chaiklin: I would just say we were completely forthright with the characters. With any project that goes on for five years, things evolve and change, and we followed it as any good storyteller does. We could have never known when we started this project that it was going to land where it did.
Goode: Carole talked about her personal life, her childhood, abuse from her first and second husband, the disappearance of her ex, Don Lewis. She knew that this was not just about ... it’s not a “Blackfish” because of the things she spoke about. She certainly wasn’t coerced. The other thing I would say about all these people is that there was a lack of intellectual curiosity to really go and understand or even see these animals in the wild. Certainly, Carole really had no interest in seeing an animal in the wild.... The lack of education, frankly, was really interesting — how they had built their own little utopias and really were only interested in that world and the rules they had created.
Doc Antle’s critique was that this isn’t a documentary, it’s “sensationalized entertainment with paid participants.”
Chaiklin: We licensed a huge amount of archival footage and personal footage, and we paid for it, the same way we would pay Getty or CNN. Other than that, we paid for a few locations here or there and a couple of life rights deals, because at a certain point there were like eight other documentaries. Categorically, we do not pay people for interviews.
Goode: Not yet. My guess is — and it may be unfair for me to say this — I think he’s gonna struggle to get it open. Obviously, in our current state of affairs, I doubt a lot of people are going to these places. I doubt he has much in the way of ticket sales. I don’t know what Jeff Lowe’s balance sheet is, but if he’s trying to solicit money from Shaquille O’Neal ...
Wait, he is?
Goode: Yes, which is absurd. I can’t see how Shaquille O’Neal’s handlers would allow him to invest.
OK, now for a few burning questions: Why was Joe Exotic’s ex-husband, John Finlay, shirtless in all of his interviews?
Chaiklin: I think he was very proud of his tattoos. That’s a big thing in that particular culture.
So he wanted to be shirtless?
Why didn’t you include the fact that Joe wasn’t actually singing on the music he claimed to be his own?
Chaiklin: We were really struggling with what the truth of it was. We went back and forth on it. With certain songs, it became super confusing. And then our fact-checker told us we were wrong — he was actually singing on certain songs. It was tricky to determine which he was on.
Goode: We cut a really good scene about that. Joe even said, “Of course not every singer sings all his songs, that’s just how it’s done.” His take on it was funny — that you could be a musician and a singer and not sing.
Have you been in touch with Joe from prison?
Goode: Joe has called me quite a few times over the last few days and weeks. One, he is absolutely ecstatic about the series and the idea of being famous. He’s absolutely thrilled. I think he is trying to be an advocate for — no surprise — criminal justice reform. He is in a cage and of course he’s gonna say that he now recognizes what he did to these animals. With Joe, we have empathy for him, but at the same time, he’s someone who really knows what to say at the right moment. I take it with a big grain of salt when he says he is now apologetic for keeping animals.
Chaiklin: You can hardly talk to him without him mentioning the amount of press he’s getting. He says people are asking to see his Prince Albert and girls are sending him sexy bikini pictures even though he’s gay. He’s over the moon. Having kept in pretty close touch with him while he’s been in a horrible county prison, this has raised his spirits. Joe definitely did some horrible things to his animals. He was very abusive to them and he shot five tigers, no question about it. But what has happened to him has also been hard.
Is he still married to Dillon?
There have been so many memes created as a result of the series. If people are only focusing on the show’s outsized characters, are they walking away with the wrong message?
Chaiklin: I am so illiterate in the social media world that it’s been a very funny reprieve. I had no idea how funny Twitter was until this last weekend. We hope that people enjoy it, but we did want them to have a serious takeaway, and it is a bummer if they don’t come away understanding that this is not the right way to treat these animals.
Goode: A few years ago, I traveled to Nepal and filmed one of the more successful tiger recovery programs with the World Wildlife Fund. We really struggled in the end, trying to fit everything into this series, and unfortunately that footage did not make it in. Obviously, I didn’t go there and film all of that for it not to land in the series. But it was hard with the tone and the direction the series ended up going in to put it all in. Of course, ideally, we want people to understand the themes without us spoon-feeding them.
‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)