Image Credit: Jean Beaufort
Since the world ground to a halt under lockdown, Tiger King has become a central piece of quarantine binge culture. The world has gone crazy, so why on earth not waste seven hours of your life watching big cat owners get… catty with each other? The star of the show, Joe Exotic, has become an internet sensation. As a cowboy with a bleached mullet and a cage full of tigers, he’s absolutely prime meme material.
It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with looking for humour in unusual places, especially in times like these. Joe’s exorbitant lifestyle is a refreshing polar opposite to our current lockdown reality. Here is a man who does what he wants, no matter how outlandish or controversial. But the championing of Joe Exotic has gone too far.
The show goes beyond petty drama, into making speculations about various lawsuits - it’s a trashy and lazy ‘whodunnit’ formula, which attempts to engender a sense of anger and injustice in its audience. Say what you like about the American justice system, but a provocative Netflix documentary cannot prove that Carole Baskin killed her husband, or that Joe Exotic is innocent.
For the unenlightened, Exotic was convicted last year of seventeen counts of animal abuse, and two counts of murder-for-hire. A change.org petition to free him has reached over 56,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Exotic’s poor treatment of his animals is made crystal clear, even though it does not take centre stage of Tiger King’s narrative. He is seen pulling a tiger cub away from its mother using a metal pole seconds after birth before pulling it through the mesh of the cage. Exotic is oblivious as the tiger cubs cry noisily in his apartment, complaining, ‘why won’t they shut the f*** up?’. According to tigers.org, tiger cubs are dependent on their mothers for the first two years of their lives. Exotic’s method of domestication is cruel. These ‘tame’ tigers will never learn to hunt and have no future outside of captivity.
Elsewhere, tigers pace their cages hungrily as the employees explain that there isn’t enough food to feed the wolves, let alone the tigers, as the zoo faces financial hardship. Yet Exotic is still shown sympathetically here, weeping at the possibility that he might have to give up his animals. His ‘entrepreneurship’ is romanticized. He is the underdog who built a tiger park from nothing, who gives his employees a second chance in life. Never mind the squalid conditions and low pay his employees receive. If Joe wanted to be a champion of the working classes, he could have started there, rather than blowing thousands on his campaign for governor of Oklahoma.
It’s easy to overlook these obvious instances of abuse when Tiger King is so insistent on its conspiratorial narrative. Exotic is cast as the misunderstood, persecuted hero, opposite the evil, manipulative villain, Carole Baskin. This narrative should be familiar to all of us. The petition appeals to Trump, that Exotic was imprisoned through ‘dirty lies and tricks. A tactic of which you are all too familiar’ and argues that Joe was ‘vilified for demanding the truth to come out about a powerful woman’. Now, Carole Baskin and Hillary Clinton are hardly spotless people. But here we can see how Exotic has become aligned with Trump as a ‘champion of the truth’; someone who isn’t afraid to say it like it is, or challenge political correctness.
Joe’s battle against the ‘big lie’ of the big cat world is outlined at the outset of episode one. He argues that Baskin and other animal rights activists don’t actually care for the rights of big cats; they simply want a larger share of the profits that come with using big cats as a public attraction. He claims that it is small-business owners like himself that truly care about their animals.
Certainly, a level of healthy cynicism should always be exercised towards animal rights activist groups. There are different interpretations of what it means to care, and what animal rights are. The PETA logo is respected as a standard for cruelty-free products, yet their euthanasia policy has been criticised as ruthless and unnecessary. But the faults and misdemeanors of Big Cat Rescue, or any of Exotic’s critics, do not excuse his own unlawful actions.
It’s easy to be drawn in by the image of a relaxed tiger riding shotgun with Exotic, but there’s only one way to cultivate that relationship. It requires the unnatural separation of a tiger cub at birth from its mother. If you aren’t convinced Exotic is ‘capable’ of killing and trading tigers, the reality of his business exploits alone should be enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
‘Tiger King’ is a fitting title for Joe Exotic, for no other reason than it hints at the tyrannical and exploitative manner with which he treats his animals and the people around him. The image he has cultivated stems from his own self-obsession, which Tiger King documents at length. He is less concerned with his animals’ welfare than with the power that their image provides him with. At a time where our freedom of movement has been restricted immeasurably, it’s tempting to see Exotic as a figure of absolute freedom; a ruthlessly ambitious zookeeper, politician, and musician, who lets no one else dictate the way he lives his life. But his freedom comes at the cost of the animals that fall into his clutches.
We have played right into the hands of a dangerous narcissist. While I can’t see Exotic being pardoned any time soon, these petitions and hashtags for his freedom excuse animal abuse. We should be less disturbed by President Trump’s joke that he would ‘look into’ pardoning Exotic, than by the fact a reporter deigned to ask the question during a coronavirus press briefing. Ultimately, Exotic stands to profit from this unprecedented level of attention and could make millions upon his release. There is a fine line between harmless memes and endorsing an animal abuser.
This cult of personality must end.