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'Tiger King' memes and Joe Exotic jokes mask the Netflix doc's most chilling takeaway

Much of the animal abuse that takes place in the series masquerades as cuteness, making it that more insidious.
There's more to all of this than meets the eye.Netflix

In the midst of a pandemic, almost anything new in the entertainment world is being dubbed “the perfect escape.” But in the case of the new Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” this isn’t hyperbole. Here was exactly what we needed while self-isolating: a binge-worthy true crime docuseries. “Tiger King” mixes cults, murder, politics and fame for a spellbinding seven hours of crazy television. The problem? We’re all talking about it — but we’re mostly missing the point.

Sure, watching the story of Joe Exotic unfold over the course of five years was fascinating, as were the various subplots of meth and mayhem. “Tiger King” was filled with cringe-worthy moments, but instead of giving us nightmares they have mostly given us memes.

“Tiger King” was filled with cringe-worthy moments, but instead of giving us nightmares they have mostly given us memes.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, filmmaker Eric Goode explained that he and his partner, Rebecca Chaiklin, sought to explore the “pathology of people that engaged in these subcultures,” adding that they honed in specifically on the people they found were “almost more interesting than the exotic animals they’re keeping.” Joe Exotic certainly is the star of this (and his own) show, but by privileging his misadventures, we may have missed a huge opportunity to make a difference in the exotic animal trade.

“The animals are the real victims who are caught up in this human drama,” Kitty Block, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told me. “The antics of Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and others featured in the series have caused untold misery for countless animals, as well as created an overpopulation crisis of big cats in this country. Using tiger cubs for public photo ops results in an untold number of cubs being bred solely for this practice and then quickly disposed of after they are only a few months old — then dumped to spend their lives in tiny cages at other roadside zoos.”

Several moments of abuse can be seen in the fourth episode, such as Joe having a promotional photoshoot with a handful of tiger cubs that are so small their eyes aren’t even open. Tiger cubs usually open their eyes about a week or two after birth. But viewers wouldn’t know that, because the filmmakers don’t mention it, instead using the footage as background to talk about Joe Exotic’s quest for better Google rankings. In the same episode, we learn that Exotic’s so-called television studio burned down due to arson. It is casually mentioned that the studio also doubled as the alligator “habitat,” but there’s no focus on how or why the alligators — who burned alive in the fire — are being kept in seemingly small indoor pools.

Perhaps the most troubling scene in the episode happens toward the end, when Exotic and his employees use a pole to pull a newborn tiger cub away from its mother while she is still in labor and unable to defend herself or her family. The tiger cub cries out as it is dragged through the dirt and pulled underneath a metal fence. Moments later we watch Joe complaining about how loud the tiger cubs' cries are as they are left in a playpen. The fate of the cubs is never disclosed to viewers, nor is it noted that the cubs are likely crying out of extreme distress.

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“For tigers and other species, the moments following birth are critical to cementing the bond between mother and offspring, and ensuring the animal survives,” conservation biologist Imogene Cancellare tells NBC News. “In the livestock industry, young are often allowed to remain with the mother for 24-48 hours before separation, and studies on early maternal separation in livestock show that animals reared without mothers produced higher stress hormones compared to those reared with their mothers... In the case of private zoos removing wild animals from their mother, it is psychologically cruel, medically negligent, and serves no purpose for the animal in question.”

There is other more obvious abuse, as when an animal grabs Exotic’s shoe and he hits it with his crutch before ultimately discharging his gun. But much of the abuse is far less clear to the average viewer who is being simultaneously bombarded with images and distracted by the main narrative involving humans. This type of abuse is the most insidious because it masquerades as cuteness.

Joe Exotic is also not the only offender. Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal owner who eventually takes over the main zoo in the series, is shown packing cubs into small hardshell suitcases, and rolling them through hotels and casinos to bring to private parties for petting and photo ops. If this was being done to dogs, there would be an uproar.

The Humane Society investigated Joe Exotic’s zoo in 2011, and their findings only confirm that animal abuse was a large part of what made the business work. The report claims that “tiger cubs were punched, dragged and hit with whips” while being “trained.” Even worse, the investigation revealed that at least five tigers were killed in approximately four months. One of those tigers was an infant cub who allegedly suffered a mysterious head injury while living inside the owners’ home. Though Exotic does eventually confess to killing tigers during the series, it’s unclear if they are the same animals listed by the Humane Society. Exotic himself accuses Doc Antle, another private zoo owner, of killing tigers in “gas chambers,” presumably when they become too old to be used for photo ops and petting.

Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal owner in the series, is shown packing cubs into small hardshell suitcases. If this was being done to dogs, there would be an uproar.

Most importantly, the problem of private zoos is so much bigger than this documentary. There are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 tigers living in captivity in the United States alone. That is a staggering number before you take into account that there are less than 4,000 living in the wild, as noted in the final moments of “Tiger King.”

“These facilities — unaccredited roadside zoos, wildlife menageries, breeding cubs for public interaction — continue to exist because the federal Animal Welfare Act is weak, outdated and poorly enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Block explains, elaborating on how and why so many wild animals are being kept in America. “USDA licensees can keep animals in inhumane, unhealthy, inappropriate and unsafe conditions, yet still be in compliance with the AWA. Further, most existing state laws address keeping these animals as pets and not the keeping of these animals at zoos and other traveling facilities.”

Cancellare agreed, adding that social media allows these unaccredited businesses to “exploit and abuse wildlife right under the noses of the well-meaning public.”

“By focusing on the people and the pretty photos, we ignore the behind-the-scenes issues surrounding animal welfare violations, and sometimes, outright cruelty,” Cancellare explains. “Unfortunately, anyone who has ever held a tiger cub, ridden an elephant, or paid to interact with a wild animal is unknowingly supporting the activities seen in ‘Tiger King.’ The wildlife trade requires that people are willing to break the law, poach wildlife, breed animals extensively, and they continue to succeed by using hashtags, cute photos and terms appropriate for accredited facilities focusing on conservation and the best accepted practices in captivity.”

Carole Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist and the CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Florida, plays a huge part in “Tiger King” thanks to her ongoing feud with Joe Exotic. Exotic, Antle and other wildlife zookeepers paint a highly unflattering picture of Baskin, which is not rebutted by the filmmakers. If anything, the major plotline involving Baskin has to do with rumors regarding the disappearance of her ex-husband. In this way, the strongest voice for conservationism is effectively minimized.

But when I asked Block about the credibility of Big Cat Rescue, she had nothing but high praise. “Her organization, Big Cat Rescue, has collaborated with the Humane Society of the United States on legislation, including the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Block shared. “BCR’s exceptional and effective work on behalf of captive big cats has made it the target of people who engage in and defend the abuse of big cats, like Joe Exotic.”

In an age where viewers are eager to soak up anything related to true crime and social justice, how did it take so long for an exposé on these places to go mainstream? According to Block, several investigative documentaries have been made in the past, but they focused solely on the animals and not the people who own them. “Because most have focused on the animals instead of sensationalizing the bizarre and unbelievable characters, they haven’t received nearly the same amount of attention,” Block explains. There have also been several exposes on Joe Exotic, including a podcast and New York magazine article by Robert Moor.

All of which is to say, viewers who have already watched “Tiger King” might want to go back and watch again. Yes, watching Exotic’s addiction to fame and men and guns is fascinating, but watching him abuse and neglect the wild animals he claims to care for is downright appalling. The same can be said for Antle, the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari who provides commentary throughout the series.

The human drama is entertaining to watch. Even Cardi B is openly speculating about whether Baskin fed her second husband to her tigers. What’s not entertaining is the idea that thousands of wild animals are still being held captive throughout the United States and likely dealing with the same abuse (if not worse) that can be witnessed between the lines of “Tiger King.”

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Joe Exotic’s former campaign manager, Joshua Dial, put it best in the series finale when he said: “We’ve completely lost sight and lost touch of what really matters here. And that’s the conservation protection of the species of this planet.”

In a just world there would be no Team Joe or Team Carole. There would just be Team Tiger.