Review: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Welcome to weird America.


This Netflix documentary might have been custom made for people trapped in a plague lockdown with nothing but too much time on their hands. Although it follows real people engaged in real things they really did, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has the feeling of an alien artifact that just came screaming in from some faraway star cluster. There's nothing in it—not the bad clothes, the bad haircuts, the lamentable life choices—that suggests an origin here on Earth. Or maybe I just need to get out more.

The story is set in the world of exotic-animal fanciers—the hinterland entrepreneurs who run private zoos in states like Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina, and the family trade that flocks to them to have pictures taken with cuddly tiger cubs. There are specialists on this circuit—people devoted to camels, bears, bobcats and 20-foot pythons—but the main attraction is tigers. (We're told that there are more of these endangered beasts living in captivity in this country than there are living in the wild throughout the rest of the world.)

The main attraction of this five-hour series—which is not some sort of do-goody nature doc—is an Oklahoma zoo owner named Joe Schreibvogel, who goes by the name "Joe Exotic," and happily describes himself as a "gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet." Look at this guy: the black-leather pants, the pistol on his hip, the rhinestone handcuffs on his belt, the earrings, the eyeliner, and, yes, the mullet, which is naturally dyed platinum. Joe describes his private zoo, which is located in rural Wynnewood, Oklahoma, as the "World's Largest Big Cat Park." But he has his eye on other prizes, as well. He has a studio on his property in which he records songs for his self-released albums (I've heard worse) and he also tapes a wildly eccentric Internet video program. His showbiz style combines the la-di-da cadences of Chris Guest's Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman and the cramped smirk deployed by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies. If Joe didn't exist, no writer would dare to invent him.

Despite his unflagging air of manic exuberance, Joe has a problem. Her name is Carole Baskin, and she's one of those PETA people who hates the idea of wild animals being forced to live in cages. So she hates Joe Exotic, and has devoted considerable time to bad-mouthing his cat park and harassing his porta-tiger roadshows. "I consider that bitch to be one of the biggest terrorists in the exotic-animal world right now," Joe says.

Carole, who has an animal operation of her own (all rescues, she claims), can afford to make Joe's life a living hell because, he says, she's a multi-millionaire. This is where Tiger King gets really interesting. According to Joe, and to several other people from whom we hear, Carole inherited all her money from her wealthy second husband, Don, who went missing some years ago and has never been found. (Police remain suspicious and the case is still open.) Carole's behavior at the time of Don's disappearance was certainly odd, and rumors abound, the most colorful one being that Carole fed her dead hub to her tigers. Joe has improved on this story with his suggestion that Carole actually fed Don's dissected body into a meat grinder. (Carole allows that she does own a meat grinder, but that it's quite small.)

As Carole makes Joe's life increasingly difficult, he becomes obsessed with her. "She was my number-one murdered-her-husband-and-fed-him-to-the-tigers crazy bitch," he says. He mused about flying a helicopter over her animal park and dropping grenades on it. And in one installment of his Internet show, we see him taking aim at a blow-up sex doll that's been rigged to look like Carole and then shooting it in the head. Lawsuits were inevitable and extensive.

Through all of this hoopla, we also get to make the acquaintance of some of Joe's fellow zoo enthusiasts. One of these, a man who calls himself Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, is a ponytailed collector of young women, whom he enjoys dressing in sexy cat-centric party outfits. One woman says that Antle is a doctor of "mystical science"; another reports that he pressured her to get breast implants (which she did). There's also a Las Vegas character named Jeff Lowe, a proud swinger whom we see with his very pregnant wife poring over some photos of potential nannies—searching for one who'll be hot enough for Jeff's continuing carnal needs. Then there's Mario Tabraue, a major-league drug dealer (retired) who believes he may have been the model for Tony Montana in Scarface. Is there room here to note that Joe Exotic has two husbands, and a third on the way?

Made over a period of five years by directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, Tiger King bears unsurprising similarities to Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (wisps of dreamtime pacing and a few unnecessary recreated scenes). The material—the wild characters and their insane machinations – is all that any connoisseur of weird Americana could want. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit of a slog as the end heaves into view——these are basically stupid, cruddy people, and having made their acquaintance, you may, after the third or fourth hour, find yourself growing eager to unmake it.

NEXT: The Crown

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  2. This review doesn’t do this documentary justice.

    First, our protagonist describes himself as a “gay, gun-carrying, polygamist redneck with a mullet”. From rural Oklahoma. Let that sink in for a moment. And he’s not the only polygamist private zoo owner in the story.

    Whatever you expect of this documentary – it is stranger than that.

    It presents a cast of grifters that are such terrible people that you’ll find yourself sympathizing with the point of view of someone who appears to be criminally insane. It has a bit of everything – if you define everything as a bunch of stuff that you never in a million years would have imagined.

    And there’s loads of stuff here for libertarians to chew on. These are people who have defined their own world. They live by their own rules and have built families their own way. Joe Exotic collects broken people – his business is a family of ex-cons, runaways and homeless people he has brought together and given a place and a purpose – caring for big cats and other exotic animals.

    We see other zoo owners who have their own version of this with different parameters – one collects young women who want to work with animals, one collects bored housewives who want to be a part of saving animals…. it is an amazing portrait of what appear to be personality cults driven by the allure of big cats.

    Then there’s gun culture. If you are a gun person…. holy crap! You’ll meet what is by far and away the most irresponsible group of gun owners you will ever see. I’ve been around gun people a lot… I’ve never met anyone who handles guns like this. You’ll be stunned by what you see.

    There’s grifters around every corner. People who turn out to be just horrifying abound. The only person I found to be likeable by the end was the one-armed woman.

    And then there’s the government, a favorite foil for libertarians. The machinations of the government are, if not evil… inscrutable? We run up against the endangered species act. And in the government’s infinite wisdom, they are protecting the endangered Tiger and other big cats by making it illegal to breed Tigers. This is a big point for PETA and the Tiger Rescue Lady. Breeding Tigers is animal abuse.

    Wrap your head around that for a moment. They make a big point that there are 10,000 Tigers in captivity in the USA, as opposed to only 4,000 in the wild. And they put this down to the scourge of captive breeding. Tiger Rescue Lady lays it out for us… she is going to shut these people down and take their tigers away so they don’t have to live in the cages in these private zoos and breed….. they can come live out their lives in her cages and not breed. This is how she is going to save them.

    The government agrees. Animal abuse isn’t malnourished cats with bones poking out and patchy fur. It isn’t animals who are beaten to get them to perform. Violations of the endangered species act isn’t shooting a mother tiger and selling her hide, taking the cubs to sell to some reclusive collector…. No, animal abuse is letting tigers make baby tigers without a permit. And letting people come pet the baby tigers. (You know, exactly like every zoo does with animals that people can’t otherwise handle, be it an alligator or a sloth or a koala bear..) Or selling those baby tigers or any other tiger. That’s illegal.

    There is murder for hire, in addition to the alleged murder of a rich husband. And federal government involvement that seems to at a minimum turn a blind eye to loads of criminal activity in order to “get their man”. There are con men who pull of heists that you would not have dared to plot in a novel. And people who get conned more easily than you would imagine. And through it all you learn that the people who have the power of government are happy to go along with the con if it leads where they want to go.

    Oh, and we also learn that violating the endangered species act is a much more serious crime than murder for hire, if you can believe that.

    There is a lot to chew on in this documentary. And he’s right, it does seem to keep on going after it should have ended…. but as it does, they keep peeling back more and more bizarre layers. As a documentary they could have tightened it up by making it just the Joe Exotic story and showing his arc… but the turn of the other characters gives the whole thing a much darker look into an alternative world.

    Whatever you imagine it might be… there’s more here than that, and it is weirder than you thought.

    1. Cyto: Joe Exotic does not use the word “polygamist” in describing himself as a “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.” And the other zoo owners are not polygamists either: one surrounds himself with young women, in a cult-like fashion, and another is a married swinger — very different things.

      1. I’m pretty sure he says “polygamist” several times. He marries two men in a single marriage ceremony too.

        1. But I’d have to rewatch it to prove it. And I don’t think I’m up for that.

          He unquestionably uses that same phrase without polygamist several times too. Proudly and loudly. So it is a nitpick, but it was only chosen to emphasize that your description of the insane world of the Tiger King undersells it by a wide margin. In fact, nothing in text could do anything other than undersell it.

          My analysis can be summed up as “no matter how odd you think it is, you underestimate the ability of the common man”.

        2. cyto: Taking on more than one spouse at the same time would indeed be polygamy.

          1. That made me laugh

        3. Just watched he does not say that. At one point someone else does use the word polygamist to describe Joe but not Joe.

    2. Watched the whole series. Cyto’s review is the better review.

    3. this review is spot on. I’ll only add that the most grounded and most normal character featured is the who Brian Depalma modeled Tony Montana after.

      1. Every angle of this series is weirder than you can imagine. The “who are the decent people” angle is one. You could do an hour over beers with friends on just “who did you like”.

        I agree that the former drug dealer came off as one of the more normal people – and he’s clearly nuts. (One sequence has him detailing his role in murdering someone and dismembering the corpse with a circular saw). Bonus… he got a lot less time for that than Joe Exotic got for not murdering anyone and selling some baby tigers.

        As I mentioned, I liked the one-armed girl. She seemed solid. And I liked the campaign manager dude, I suppose. He might post here.

        Everyone else is… .well, you just have to see the thing.

        1. The double amputee seemed fairly grounded.

          1. And yet there was the turn at the end.

    4. “they don’t have to live in the cages in these private zoos and breed….. they can come live out their lives in her cages and not breed. This is how she is going to save them.”

      …and, of course, not after you you can pay her with your time to work her “sanctuary” or pay her for the privilege of viewing the animals she is keeping in what appears to be conditions inferior to those of Joe Exotic or Doc. Their cats generally looked very well-fed and that Liger Doc had is a monster.

      I found it all pretty fascinating and Carole & Co. come off much more objectionable than her opponents, which is saying alot.

  3. This is the inevitable result of your ideology — people with enough money should be able to do whatever the fuck they want. Here’s what that looks like. You’re making fun of it, but you’re really just making fun of your retarded beliefs.

    1. I kinda knew that would be the progressive response.

      These people are unquestionably living in a self-defined society that is orthagonal to the rules of government.

      But there really isn’t so much of an element of “people with enough money doing whatever they want”. These people are kind of amazing because they don’t have much in the way of resources – they seem to be basically poor and stupid and crazy – and yet they have a passion that allows them to build these private zoo empires and create their own society. It is a weird and exploitative society, but one that the people living in seem happy with.

      The only “rich person doing whatever they want” is the one who is trying to destroy these little kingdoms in order to prevent people from breeding big cats. She’s the one who has the US government on her side, and she’s the only one trying to force other people to live according to her whims.

      For libertarians, there’s a lot of familiar ground here – and a lot of folks who would be right at home at the Libertarian Party’s national convention. (and no, I don’t think that’s a complement… in either direction)

      1. I didn’t really see that as a “progressive” response. More of a “sensible people who think that one shouldn’t be able to have 200 wild killing machines ina ramshackle chicken-wire park without some kind of license oversight to show you can responsibly care for them” response.

        The idea that one can own endangered species and then just shoot them them in the head when the upkeep becomes too expensive and they’re not cute enough to play with anymore is a little bothersome as well, but that’s another matter.

    2. As opposed to your ideology, that the purpose of government is to enable people without money to do whatever they want? Talk about retarded beliefs.

      1. i don’t think you actually understand Progressive (or even just plain left-leaning) ideology.

        Because that’s not even remotely what it is.

        Nobody thinks anyone should be able to do whatever they want.

    3. @The Glibertine Party “This is the inevitable result of your ideology” kind of like calling the kettle black, fucking retard. You regressives are so full of yourselves you don’t see how your control freak ideology has contributed to the breaking up of the family, the destruction of the education system, programs that have put us in debt, cities filled with used needles and human shit etc. Go fuck yourself, leftard.

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  6. I gotta see this shit!

    1. Just be prepared…. it is disturbing as well as being a view of the weird.

      It looks like between Kurt and I the entire thing has been laid out…. It hasn’t. I didn’t even scratch the surface. There are moments that will leave you shocked … “that didn’t just happen!” will be a common thought.

      It is well done and thought provoking…. but it isn’t a feel-good story.

  7. There’s so much to chew on here. One angle:

    You know how your local zoo makes a huge deal about their new lion exhibit, or new tiger enclosure? Getting even 1 big cat is a huge deal. They put up posters and sell tickets based on their rare and exotic acquisition.

    These private zoos have dozens of tigers. Dozens.

    In this documentary we learn that, absent government controls, a tiger costs $2,000. ($30,000 per month to feed, but only a couple of thousand to buy.)

    The endangered species act makes it illegal to transfer or breed these animals. Yet “black market” breeding has made them abundant and cheap – negating the need to take animals from the wild. So cheap that there actually exists a “Big Cat Rescue” (zoo) for unwanted big cats.

    There’s definitely some lessons in there for libertarians and free-market sympathizers.

    1. I have often said that the animals that wind up on the endangered list are the ones that don’t have an economic value or not owned by anyone. I am guessing that the documentary tends to prove that. There are more domestic tigers than wild.

  8. Speaking of awesomely weird shit, how about black market inter-species breeding?

  9. You forgot that he runs for POTUS… for real. Then when that goes belly up he runs for governor! And his campaign manager is a 20-something who used to work ar Walmart in the sporting good section who is a libertarian (not vouching fo his bona fides but it is what it is). And that isn’t even CLOSE to the most gonzo part of the show that the campaign manager is involved in (the scene from the security camera footage that just shows the manager sitting in his chair talking to someone off camera… omfg what a kick in the gut).

    And he has one of the best songs ever for a gay guy… “Pretty Woman Lover” where he extols his passion for beautiful women while also being the object of attention for fat women. No joke.

    1. The Walmart gun counter clerk is an excellent example of the “you have no idea what is about to happen” aspect of this doc. As you point out… the fact that he later shows up as the campaign manager – and is the competent one in the room – is far from the most surprising twist he’s involved in.

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  11. What creeps me out is how Carole from Big Cat Rescue talks, sounds like, blinks her eyes when questioned and sounds just like Hillary Clinton and comes across like a total fucking fake. She wants to take others cats to get then out of their cages and into HER OWN FUCKING CAGES!! Where she then manipulates people to do free work for her all the while she collects 10s of thousands from her Youtube channel where gullible people eat her rescue bullshit up like they’re cult figures. I hope she ends up a snack for a cat!!

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  13. Finished the series last night. So many new grifters showed up in the last few episodes. But you have to hand it to Carole..getting women to work for the next up color shirt..while she makes a ton fo money. In the end she is the ultimate grifter of the series. She will shut down breeding and given the average life of a time will have a nice monopoly and the “wokes” will give her an award for saving the Tigers. I’ve noticed women have an affinity for direct sellers and honestly Carol has the classic direct seller appeal to women.

    She reminds me of the academic college presidents who rail on private colleges while they rake in millions. The DNC should have put her up against Trump..she would have won.

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  17. My analysis can be summed up as “no matter how odd you think it is, you underestimate the ability of the common man”.

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