It's the Netflix docu-series that millions of people have been talking about. But is what they are saying really worth talking about? In this article, I explain my thoughts on this show and why I feel the directors missed an absolutely golden opportunity!
Over 34 million people watched Tiger King in its first 10 days of release, to say it has been popular is an understatement! In my podcast I spoke to my brother who is a music producer, to get his point of view, I wanted to see what someone in a non-wildlife industry thought of the show.
You can listen to the podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/safarisinclair/safari-sinclair-podcast-episode-5
Or watch the video version here: https://youtu.be/Twq5DROVNyg
We both agreed that people have missed the point of the show. There is more talk about whether Carole killed her husband than the Tigers in captivity.
If you have not watched the Netflix series yet it is a true-crime documentary series (7 episodes) exploring the big cat breeding and petting industry in America. It's based around some very eccentric zookeepers and their lives with these big cats.
When I saw it pop up in my Netflix feed I wasn't really in the mood to watch it however a few days later my brother asked me if I'd watched it yet seeing how it was about animals. So that weekend I binged it. To be honest, at first, I was quite intrigued and I really wanted to understand the psychology behind these people and why they kept these big cats. I wondered if they really genuinely thought in their own world that they were really helping conservation. I thought it might be a similar thought process to how terrorists feel when bombing people - that they have truly been called by God to do this mission. Crazy I know! I was enthralled by the show and the truly alien concept of owning these big cats. However, by episode 4 I really started to lose interest in the show, even though I did see it through and watched all 7 episodes and the bonus episode released later.
I really feel the guys who made this show missed a golden opportunity here!
Quite often when documentaries are made about wildlife, the reality is very sad and not a lot of people want to watch them for that reason. The majority of people sit down to watch things to be entertained, they want to laugh and connect with characters.
But here Tiger King HAS the entertainment value of these crazy cat people who would do and say anything on camera, Joe even wanted to be filmed when abusing animals.
That sort of opportunity doesn’t come around very often. The cub petting industry has been growing over the past few years and I really hoped this would show people what it really means for these animals. However, the show very quickly focused way more on two of the main human characters.
Because the feud between Joe and Carole was so strong in entertainment value I don’t think viewer ratings would have gone down at all if they just slipped in a few more shots here and there of the Tigers plight, and really spelt it out for people. People need things spelling out or they just won’t get it.
Here are a few golden opportunities that could have been developed more to help people get the REAL POINT!
1) In Episode 1, Joe Exotic gets hold of a cub for visitors to have photos with it. He said: “From the time that they’re 4 weeks old to the time that they’re 16 weeks old, you can profit $100,000 on that cub … interaction, playtime, photos,”
The show didn’t say how long cubs should stay with their mothers which is usually around 2 years in the wild. They didn't explore what happens to these cubs after they are 16 weeks old. They didn't show how Joe went from having 70 cats to over 200 and where he kept them all, how crammed in they were, what their living conditions were really like!
2) In a later episode when Joe runs out of money, he started breeding the cubs again for photo ops and it shows them hooking the cub away from its mum as soon as it was born. Then it shows the cubs in little baby crates in Joe's living room, where Joe says: "They just won't stop screaming".
Now I am sure many people will think “awh that’s good to Joe raising the cubs inside his house” but the fact is they have been torn away from their mum before they even have that all-important 1st suckle which contains nutrients they desperately need. The show didn’t explain why they are taken away from their mum’s so soon and the health issues these cubs have because of it. It didn't explain how in the wild cubs would normally stay with their mothers for up to 2 years! It didn't show or mention the trauma caused to the mothers to keep having babies but having them taken away instantly. Those poor Tigers were like breeding machines on a conveyor belt just so people could have photos with baby cubs and these zookeepers can profit from it!
3) In episode 5, there's a shot of Jeff Lowe in his red Ferrari. The gorgeous white Tiger sat in his passenger seat is actually cross-eyed! Nothing at all was mentioned about that and how that can happen due to overbreeding. The show didn’t explain the consequences of constant breeding with such a limited gene pool, and the health problems these poor animals have to live with, often internal problems that are not seen, such as severe problems with their gut.
I have since read a few articles on the internet that are saying things like "Why can't you just see Tiger King for what it is and just enjoy the entertainment?"
Well, my problem with statements like that is I do not believe you should miss opportunities like that to educate people to what is really happening if it can benefit someone or something.
Director of Tiger King, Eric Goode himself admits that when he started the project he was interested in showing the ethical issues of keeping big cats in cages. There are currently more big cats in captivity than there are in the wild!
Rebecca Chaiklin told IndieWire: “We started going around to places in Florida, where every few houses somebody has some crazy exotic animal in certain areas in their backyard. It was really stunning to me how pervasive this was. We thought it would be much more issue-oriented and we had no idea that it would take the twists and turns that it would end up taking,”
Goode said. “So we first dove into that, really looking at the pathology of people that keep these animals in much the way ‘Best in Show’ does it with dog shows. Then of course, we stumbled onto this story that led us in a whole other direction...
That was a very honest way the story unfolded. Rebecca and I started in South Florida with a guy that I had interactions with over 30 years, but wasn’t close to him. He had been extradited out of Central America back to the U.S., he was a smuggler and a reptile dealer...One day when we were there, a guy showed up wanting to buy a Gaboon viper, a venomous snake. He subsequently showed us what he had just bought in his van. He slid the van door open, and Rebecca and I saw this snow leopard in a little cage. It was 100% humidity and very hot that day in Florida. We were shocked.” - Quote from IndieWire Interview
Eric Goode himself is involved in various conservation efforts and one of the other producers of the show worked on "The Cove" which explores Dolphin hunting in Japan. So these guys had the knowledge and brains to bring these issues more to the forefront.
Goode went on to say: “The other thing I would say about all these people is that there was a lack of intellectual curiosity to really go and understand or even see these animals in the wild. Certainly, Carole really had no interest in seeing an animal in the wild… The lack of education, frankly, was really interesting – how they had built their own little utopias and really were only interested in that world and the rules they had created.”
Goode told LadBible: “People should not be exploiting these incredible animals for monetary gain. I do not see any redeeming aspects of what they’re doing. They’re exploiting these animals, there’s a lot of suffering and cruelty taking place and it’s quite a selfish pursuit...I think that ultimately if you want to save tigers, the right solution is to save tigers in the wild.”
So I definitely think Goode and the others got totally wrapped up in the story of Joe and Carole, and really missed a golden, GOLDEN opportunity to educate people, so they could really see and understand why they shouldn’t personally pet cubs and what it is really like for these animals in captivity!
I can't write an article about Tiger King and not mention Carole Baskin and her Big Cat "Sanctuary". I think there is something very shady about that lady. I not sure what to believe, did she kill her husband and feed him to the Tigers, I don't know. I do know they had tones of footage that didn't make the show and I do know how things can be edited to make you think and feel a certain way, so other than Carole, and possibly the Tiger, who really knows!
I’m sure there are also many issues in her park. I read on her website that her cats do have considerably more space than the recommended sqm required. It also looked like the enclosures were landscaped to give the cats a more wild feel. But that wasn't shot very well or made clear in Tiger King. Animal Defenders International issued a statement defending Carol and the enclosures.
However, it is still questionable as to why they have such tiny feeding tubes!
And why she doesn’t pay her staff while she makes massive profits, all seems very shady to me. There's probably another opportunity to make a documentary just about that Sanctuary. Whatever the truth is about all that though, I do have to agree with her on this - it is shocking that people are becoming fans of Joe Exotic and she also blames the series for not showing the full extent of his abuse towards big cats.
Carole said to the Times “One moment in “Tiger King” shows Joe Exotic ripping a cub away from his mother, but it’s a cutaway clip and not the focus of an episode... They saw those cubs being dragged away from their mother. Where are those memes? Where are those comments?”
“I just feel so angry that people have totally missed the point. And the point is these cubs are being abused and exploited and the public is enabling that.” - Carole Baskin
I'm sure many people get into these things with good intentions and maybe Joe did too. When he started the zoo he said: "These are very dangerous animals, very beautiful animals but they have their place in this world and that’s in Africa and Asia and India. Not in Oklahoma. The state needs to pass laws that this breeding has got to stop." I'm not sure if he ever meant those words, maybe he did, maybe he didn't. I thought his comments at the end of episode 7 were very sobering though:
"Are the animals happy? Who the hell knows? I finally moved my 2 chimpanzees last week. Probably one of the hardest days in my life. They sat in cages next to each other for over 10 years. And we’ve moved them to the Great Apes Center in Florida. And in 2 days they were out in a big yard hugging on each other. Did I deprive them of that for 10 years? Yep. I deprived them of being Chimpanzees. Did I do it on purpose? No I was wrapped up in having a zoo!" - Joe Exotic
The whole situation in America and other countries is truly sad. I do think the directors of Tiger King should have done more to pull on the public's heartstrings, to make people realise they really shouldn't be enabling this to happen. If the public gets their act together there will be no demand for photo opportunities and "playtime" with cubs and then these places will not breed as many cubs. It's quite simple, as long as there is a demand these big cat owners will keep up the supply!
Don't get me wrong, I would love to hold and play with a baby cub, they are cute, they are adorable. But it is not about what I want! It has to be about what is best for the animal! The Tigresses and Lionesses do not deserve to pump out cubs like a machine, the cubs do not deserve to be deprived of their mothers love and care and the Tigers and Lions do not deserve to be subjected to a life in captivity for our entertainment!
Hopefully some good will come off the back of Tiger King and awareness will be raised by people sharing their thoughts. If it stops just a few people going to these places then it will have all been worth it! So much good could have been done by Joe and Carole as was said by Joshua Dial. I'd like to end my article with his closing words from episode 7...
"Everyone has lost in this. What started out as this feud between 2 people, a good and noble fight to stop cub selling, cub petting – turned into a personal and legal court battle and it just became about them. It has to be millions of dollars, it has to be. Think of the hundreds of thousands spent investigating Joe. Think of her millions of followers, donors and whatnot, think of how far that could go, saving these tigers in their natural habitats. We’ve completely lost sight and lost touch of what really matters here and that is the conservation and protection of the species of this planet." - Joshua Dial - Tiger King