In 2009, the first offering of the now hit film franchise The Hangover came out. It was outlandish, but funny. The film also had a ‘bitten ear’ worth part for Mike Tyson and his pet tiger. Yet Mike Tyson having a pet tiger didn’t seem that far out, given all that Mike Tyson is or was. It almost fit the bill. But what is astounding is the fact that besides Tyson, there are over 10,000 Americans who keep the big cat as a pet. All this and more is shown in the latest Netflix original documentary – Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. This 40-minutes or so long seven-part documentary, shot over five years, presents the shenanigans of Joseph Schreibvogel aka Joe Exotic, and the country’s odd desire to own dangerous wildlife.
Joe Exotic is the protagonist of the series and we hear his story of how he landed in the ‘big cat’ business and opened the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. We see a lot of footage of him monkeying around with tigers, chaining lions and pumas, rubbing tiger cubs’ bellies, even taking some to bed. Kisses are exchanged, a lion rides shotgun with Joe Exotic in a convertible for a long drive. The full mane of the lion and Joe Exotic himself make for excellent viewing. A fellow zoo owner with a name that out quirks Joe Exotic and a character in his own right — Dr Bhagavan Antle describes Joe as ‘completely insane, gay, gun-toting drug-addict, fanatic’. In the documentary, we see how his homosexuality is stigmatic for his parents, as also the loss of his brother early on in life – both leaving a lasting mark on his personality. We see the rise of Joe Exotic: from doing animal shows in malls, to ferrying animals in a tour bus to finally running a big zoo, which is like a stage for him, where he performs non-stop.
In all honesty, this seems like an all-American dream come true, where a gay man, a misfit, on the periphery of society, constructs his own dream circus, knowing fully well that he might never get the chance in the mainstream space. He welcomes people from all walks of life, who sit in rapt attention, as he feeds and wrestles the ‘big cats’. Yes, it takes all kinds to fill the world, and sure Joe Exotic has his corner as well. One would wonder that maybe an hour would have been enough for an inside look at his crazy town infested with big cats, but with him, we are taken to this peculiar world where we meet others like him, who like to tame tigers and have chimpanzees on their backs. Among the many, there is Dr Bhagavan Antle who makes an entry sitting on an elephant and has multiple wives. Then there is Tim Stark, who is never far away from his pet monkey and owner of Wildlife In Need, and there is Mario Tabruae, former drug-lord, who now has a private zoo. But the one that completes this motley cast is Carol Baskins, Joe Exotic’s arch-nemesis. Baskins is a middle-aged woman who runs the rescue facility Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, where aged, abused big cats find a resting place.
These two were like Hatfields and McCoys, says Rick Kirkham, producer, Joe Exotic TV. The feud between the two covered ample newsprint while it was being fought mainly on social media and through email campaigns and gimmicks that ranged from sending spies to name-calling. Cash-rich Baskins, along with the support of animal rights lobby and PETA, had the upper hand. Added to the intrigue is the death or disappearance of Baskins’ husband. Sure, their antics and the sheer absurdity hold you and like a TV reporter said, ‘it’s a train wreck, but you are unable to look away’.
The documentary series continues Netflix’s obsession with the oddball. Remember Wild Wild Country? Tiger King is in the same vein. The documentary, which deals with real events, has been directed in a way that it brings flashbacks from soap operas — right from Dynasty, The Bold and the Beautiful and even Ekta Kapoor’s K soaps — back to mind. Every episode ends in a cliffhanger, that will keep you from sleeping and let Reed Hastings (Netflix CEO) succeed. It is a documentary that is binge-able. Has Netflix finally cracked the recipe of mixing information and content into a palatable hors d’oeuvre?
By the third episode, you will be completely larded in Joe Exotic’s world, and you perhaps wouldn’t blanch seeing him play with the four-inch teeth of a white tiger. The over-powering leopard prints, and the numerous fringes, well you will just accept them as the mis-en-scene. You will not even blink an eyelid when Carole Baskins cycles around her park on a white and black leopard print bicycle, and when we sneak into her wardrobe almost everything she owns has as animal print emblazoned on it. When Joe Exotic announces his run for the President of the USA — it merits a slot on The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver — you don’t even register it. But then he does run for the Governor of Oklahoma and he comes in third, and you take a slight breath, and sigh. If Donald Trump can win, Joe Exotic can still have hope.
Bingeworthy for sure, but the docu-series lacks in its understanding of the big cats as a phenomena by themselves. Because, well it is directed by Americans, and the big cats are not even native to the region. In India, even though we are surrounded by lions and tigers, given our extensive folk tales and many mythologies, we don’t kid around with them. Mythology aside, we revere, respect and fear them, as they are supposed to be. The term ‘big cats’, though widely used and accepted, I believe, is a misnomer, almost disrespectful. They are at the top of the food chain, magnificent as hell.
In fact, the mainstream, even Hollywood, has depicted them in the glorious avatar and form that they truly deserve. Be it The Lion King, with the voice of actor James Earl Jones as Mufasa, or even Nana Patekar as Sher Khan in the animated Jungle Book of the early nineties and the latest, with Idris Elba in the 2016 live-action version, the tiger did inspire real, genuine fear. We even had Born Free the story of Elsa, a tigress who was raised by humans and then released into the jungles of Kenya. Yes, we are obsessed with the king of the jungle, but let’s face it, the obsession works really well even from a distance. That’s why we go to Ranthambore and Jim Corbett, or those who can afford it, Masai Mara.
A couple of years ago, a young man had accidentally landed in the enclosure of a white tiger in the Delhi Zoo, and was mauled and killed on the spot by the occupant of the said enclosure. It was the law of the jungle taking over, and the incident was left at that. We humans have done enough damage to our jungles and the wildlife by proxy. If you thought Tiger King was the story that might tilt the narrative and we might have a shift surrounding wildlife and how humans have encroached from all sides, and why tigers and lions should not be bred in captivity, well this is not that series.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Mayhem will have you in its thrall, but perhaps it will leave you uneasy – uneasy enough for you to not talk about it at your next Zoom party, or put it up on Instagram as a must-watch. Maybe it will make you donate to PETA, or maybe make you help out a stray animal next time you see one.
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