Tiger King: A Review


In the early months of 2020, when the world was reeling with the imposition of lockdowns in various nations, and when our modern lifestyles had started feeling distinctly dystopian, we turned to our televisions for a healthy dose of escapism. Tiger King, a documentary that outlined the dark underbelly of big-cat breeding in the small-town USA and the bizarre lives of the criminally eccentric people involved in such businesses, spanning seven episodes, graced our streaming platforms.

Now, it would be safe to say, that anyone who hasn’t watched Tiger King might assume that it’s like any other true-crime series, peppered with intrigue, mildly disgusting characters that are just believable enough, and a healthy dose of disturbing realism.

It is all of the above, but it’s also much more than that. The main focus is Joseph Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, an eccentric, gun-toting redneck with a blonde mullet, who runs a supremely shady zoo with big cats, in Oklahoma.

Joe is gay, with two husbands, neither of whom identify as homosexuals. But this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of wild and eccentric stories in this series.

His rival is a ‘doctor of mystical science” called Bhagavan Antle and has three wives. And his nemesis was once under the suspicion of murdering her husband. (If the internet is to be believed, then she most definitely killed her husband.)

Everyone who populates the screen is missing a tooth or two. A woman has her arm ripped off on camera, but is surprisingly nonchalant about the accident, saying that her colleague has no legs. Despite what you think, no, the tigers did not bite their legs off.

It is a mark of how unimaginably bizarre this show is, that Joe’s run for the Presidency of the united states is barely given a few hundred seconds of screen time. If you had only heard the stories shown in Tiger King, you would think the narrator was a liar or worse. But with cinematic proof, these outlandish stories helped divert our attention, and alleviate the collective sense of boredom, stress and paranoia induced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, at first glance, this can seem like a show about crazy rural Americans and their ridiculous lives, various eccentricities and countless psycho-pathologies.

However, if one looks past the gloss and gore of this docu-series, we are confronted by something altogether more sinister.

It is a commentary on the insatiable greed of man, personified by Joe Exotic, whose self-serving nature renders him wholly incapable of caring for anyone and anything. Least of all his employees and animals (that he feigns love for), all of whom live in various stages of abuse and disregard under his regime.

Each of the seven episodes ends in such shocking plot twists, that even the filmmaker, Eric Goode, echoes his audience’s sentiments. Each of the characters is themselves survivor of abuse, delinquents and even Exotic himself hints at a troubled childhood.

Without spoiling the story for anyone who might not have watched it, it is safe to say that, mocking and vilifying the characters is all too easy. Their antics and outlandish existences are potent distractions from the core issue of the series.

At its heart, Tiger King is a documentary about our bottomless desire to bend and beat nature into submission. Our shameful habit of making a spectacle of big cats, animals that should be revered, respected and allowed the freedom of their natural habitats.

It’s anchored by a man with a God-complex, blinded by delusions of grandeur and one, like countless other tyrants, displays the basest behaviour of man, finding power in feeding on the fear of the helpless.

It ends on a sobering note, reminding the viewer that there are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild.

These tigers, bred by Joe and the likes, are sold for around $5000 and shipped to various states in the US. Sometimes, after some wrangling, lion-tiger hybrid ‘Ligers’ are shipped to the royalty in middle-east for tens of thousands of dollars.

The shelf-life of such tiger cubs is a little more than three months. After which they start displaying more of their instincts than petting zoo owners and patrons can stomach.

And thus, they are relegated to large cages and enclosures that barely meet the minimum standards to house any living creature, let alone, majestic, magical beasts such as tigers.

What happens when they become too big to handle, or no longer contribute to their owners’ agendas? They meet the same fate as all unwanted animals and are put down. After living a life that’s not wild enough and definitely not domesticated enough.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that regulates wildlife trade added tigers to the endangered species list in 1970. And in 2003, only after a tiger was discovered in the apartment of a Brooklyn taxi driver, did Congress pass a federal law that prohibited the sale and transport of big cats as pets.

However, the FWS did not police domestic transport and sale of big cats until 2016. Even today, dangerous animals in private holdings are entirely unregulated in four states and only barely regulated in others. Laws are unevenly enforced and in some instances, left wholly for individual states to deliberate upon. 

Thus creating a milieu where such private zoos can offload animals to dealers, who sell them at auctions. 

Tiger King, while on the surface is a true-crime documentary whose sole intention was probably to entertain people in the early months of the pandemic, has thus blown the lid off the illegal and entirely unregulated wildlife trade that still flourishes in the US. Offering us all a lot more to think about than whether Carole Baskin killed her husband.


About the Featured Image:

Clicked By: Dr Mahin Bhatt

A young sub-adult male tiger strolled comfortably past jeeps packed to the brim with tourists, all of whom were stunned by his majesty. This photo was taken on a morning safari barely a few minutes into the jungle, where his burnt orange coat possessed an otherworldly glow in the morning mist.
Technical Specifications:
Camera: Nikon D3500
Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm
F-stop: f11
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About the author

Dr Mahin Bhatt is a medical intern from Mumbai. He has a keen interest in clinical medicine, medical research and education, especially in the fields of Internal medicine and Haemato-oncology. He is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including research grants from ICMR, Oncology Scholarships at Tata Memorial Hospital and King’s College London, and has secured multiple academic prizes including a Gold Medal & First rank in all of Maharashtra in his Final Year MBBS. Community engagement and affecting social change at a grassroots level is one of his many passions. His hobbies include writing, wildlife photography and Hindustani classical music.



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