The Tiger King: A look into the Wild World of Big Cat Captivity

Debi Boyle

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a relatively new docuseries held on Netflix, has captured the attention of many. It is a series that explores subjects such as animal rights, murder and cults. The people it follows are just as wild as the big cats they keep in captivity. This is especially true of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe “Exotic”, a paranoid gun-toting zoo owner the documentary series is centered around. It consists of seven episodes following the zookeeper and the events leading up to his alleged murder-for-hire plot and arrest, as well as a more recent eighth episode where many of those associated with Joe Exotic are interviewed over video call. While many people are in quarantine, this series, full of stranger-than-fiction people and events, has been viewed by many.

The series opens with the fact that there are currently more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. This gives the viewers something to think about: whether or not it is wrong to keep big cats in captivity. There is something sinister about seeing the cats caged and tiger cubs being passed around to be pet and played with. “I find keeping big cats in captivity stupid,” says Stout student Mona Nooh. “You’re not letting them roam. After all, they are wild animals not house cats.” Another Stout student, Sara Nyhus, said that cub petting should be banned because of the fact that it endangers the health of the cubs, and that the animals seen in the docuseries shouldn’t be held in captivity unless absolutely necessary. Stout student Hannah Neist said, “it does a good job spreading a message about giant predators in captivity, and how we should maybe take a closer look at the fact that it’s legal for any random person to own them.”

The docuseries does fall into some faults in how it portrays the people involved. Many viewers still go away from it with the conclusion that they are awful towards both the animals and the people they work with. Some aspects of Joe Exotic, such as his racism or his fear of tigers, isn’t explained in the docuseries itself. Carole Baskins, who is accused of killing her husband and putting him through a meat grinder to feed her big cats, is shown with a large factory meat grinder when she explicitly said that she had a small kitchen meat grinder. Many people are open to the idea that Carole Baskins is guilty, but they are critical because of the lack of conclusive evidence. Along with this was the trending #freejoeexotic on twitter, which may show that the fact that Joe Exotic was abusive towards people and animals may have fallen on deaf ears for much of the audience. Joe does appear quite cartoonish throughout the docuseries and it is possible that, along with some of the information left out of the docuseries, some viewers were charmed by his kooky personality. There are many viewers who believe this man should stay in jail. “He got what he deserved,” Nyhus said.

All in all, Tiger King is a mixed bag. There is some dishonest framing within the series, for it is here to entertain as well as inform. As its title suggests, it shows a tale of murder, mayhem and madness up to the arrest of Joe Exotic. The message isn’t to make the viewers fully sympathize with any of the people within it, but to reveal both the good and the bad. Those who worked with big cats and the documentary itself are morally grey. To some people this is a juicy story to watch while staying inside and to some it is an eye-opener about the state of big cat conservation.