I’d imagine by now you’ll have either watched Tiger King or heard about it.
It offers grotesque human and animal exploitation, murder plots, deceit, sabotage, confidence tricksters, mullets, vicious professional jealousy that’s obsessively creepy and pathological, an uncomfortable amount of amputees, suspicious suicides and disappearances, more mullets, political condoms, guns, three way gay marriages, more guns, hideous Garth Brooks pastiches, a harem of female helpers that double as slavish concubines, blowing up inflatable dolls with legal explosives, lucrative black market exotic animal breeding and cub petting, and the equally profitable scheme of running an animal welfare refuge thanks to a huge social media following and free labour.
But instead of revulsion at all the lunacy and shamelessness we’re presented with there’s fascination, even if it’s of the sarcastic or morbid kind. Tiger King is a cultural phenomenon.
We can allow ourselves some semantic leeway with Tiger King as we recognise the cognitive dissonance of the documentarians wedging themselves in this surreal cycle of exploitation by profiting from Joe Exotic’s quixotic behaviour and the salacious rumours surrounding Carole Baskin’s ascent. You’re also, and this is where I give the producers some credit, placed into a white trash sub-culture straight from America’s rancid underbelly, fuelled by poverty and destitution. This is very rarely documented willingly, primarily as it’s a source of tremendous embarrassment for educated Americans and a huge dent to America’s persistent show of self-denial as ‘the best country in the world’.
Without said latitude the popularity of the show doesn’t add up. Reality docs are a tired genre. The prevailing consensus in the mainstream ‘woke’ culture is that keeping exotic or wild animals in menageries is cruel, or at best somewhat sub-optimal. And anyway, what animals are we to consider ‘wild’ or ‘exotic’. What is domesticated? Is it being bred in captivity? What is humane? What conditions the animal is kept? Is it just simply a series of superficial arbitrary measures, that how much we care is based on the size, beauty, dangerousness or scarcity of the animal in the wild? It’s all rather vague, as are, suitably, the laws which govern animal ownership in the US. But what seems like a pivotal moral and legal discussion is dispensed, suitably, given how disposable the animals are, for Joe Exotic’s and Carole Baskin’s tawdry feud.
Tiger King’s popularity is due, I suspect, to the most obvious explanation – thanks to the unforeseen consequences of social media we live in a time where conservatism and group identity prevail, not only over freedom of speech, but freedom of thought. This barrage of far right and left shaming means most of us only truly feel liberated to indulge in extreme behaviours vicariously. By watching Tiger King at home, in privacy, nobody can judge you for laughing (or wincing) when a snippet of Joe Exotic’s gloriously abominable music videos arrives, or for admitting there are worse alternatives for the keepers and animals. Better the employees have jobs at a zoo than sit in a trailer park drinking vodka and smoking crystal meth all day, and the animals be kept in captivity than get poached, cut up and or sold in a Chinese wet market.
Coronavirus, and its ongoing surge, originated in such an environment. It’s hard not to be enticed by the thought of Covid-19 offering a firm karmic rebuttal on nature’s behalf for our blasé treatment of animals and the environment for what amounts to greed, especially when the main protagonists in Tiger King offer a particularly egregious example of it. Even if we’ve developed the cognitive capability to breed other species into domestication or for commercial agriculture, that we think this should be extended to caging large apex predators in confined spaces is nothing more than pure arrogance.
Speaking of naïveté a contrast between two events in Tiger King offers us conclusive proof that certain animals cannot be truly tamed to react proportionally, and that using Karma, chance or fate in its stead is one of human consciousness’s most destructive forms of absolution. At one point we see a keeper nearly get her hand ripped off by a Tiger just for putting her hand into the cage. Later, we see one attempting to put a Christmas hat on a Tiger, who, unsurprisingly, wasn’t cooperative. Instead of it reacting somewhat benignly, you would’ve loved to see it remove that person’s face.
There’s an overwhelming number of bad actors on show here; Jeff Lowe is a creep, Doc ‘Blowhard’ Antle is a depressingly crappy Harvey Weinstein knockoff, and Joe Exotic is smearing himself with his own faeces whilst wearing a Marilyn Monroe paper mask with the eyes cut out crazy. Yet amongst all the nutters, deadbeats and conmen it is Baskin who deserves additional scorn, because she, a dismally infantile cat lady, and her servile husband, piously and disingenuously parade themselves as the homogenised and ethical face of big cat confinement.
Ultimately Tiger King’s main narrative string lacks clout because I really couldn’t care less if Carole Baskin offed her second husband, or if Joe Exotic tried to have her killed. Well, perhaps I’m not completely apathetic about the latter. I’m just sorry that Joe Exotic didn’t manage it, and that now he’s safely incarcerated where Tigers can’t maul him.
Most of all I’m relieved that I’m not one of these horrible wankers, or near them. Yet I’m left wondering whether Tiger King’s dystopian foreboding might’ve caused me permanent psychological damage. Now I stay awake at night wondering if Big Black Bubba, wearing a leopard print crop top which terminates perfectly at the top of his pot belly, is making Joe Exotic his bitch by decimating his ringpiece and if Joe likes this arrangement. Or if a hundred years from now, with the world completely ravaged by our ongoing indifference to disease and pollution, the world will be ran by psychopaths like Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. They’ll fight for devotees by breeding increasingly grotesque iterations of feral mutant humanoids, who, thanks to generations of bad dental hygiene, mullets, and abortive tattoo choices have achieved an evolutionary split from the media consumers who now cannot leave their homes for fear of being mauled by one of them. Let’s be glad that all of us won’t be around to witness the documentary about that.