Hey All You Cool Cats and Kittens

Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness

Note: Tiger King is rated TV-MA for language, smoking, and animal harm, and is not suitable for viewers under 17. This article may also contain spoilers.

During this time of chaos, thousands are flocking from the New York Times to Netflix seeking entertainment and blissful ignorance. However, craziness doesn’t stop at the news: Netflix’s new documentary series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, proves that 2020 is just plain insane.

Within hours of its release, Tiger King topped Netflix’s charts for True Crime Documentaries. By the end of the day, it was the #1 most watched show on Netflix in the United States, and still is eighteen days later. That streak is the longest ever held by a Netflix show, beating the previous record of six days held by The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.

The tidbit that Netflix plays as a trailer doesn’t reveal much—some tiger footage, a workplace injury, and a financially-concerned zookeeper. Indulge in the series’ subtitle, however, and discover a truly shocking story

The series circles Joe Exotic. Yes, that’s his real name—at least, since he legally changed it. Exotic lived on a large plot of land in Oklahoma that he turned into his own tiger home: the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.

Exotic is not just a zookeeper, though. He is an entertainer, a reality TV star on a show he self-produces, a country music singer-songwriter—with music he also self-produces—, a former Libertarian presidential candidate, and a former Oklahoma mayoral candidate.

All of these unique interests have their special moments in the series, as do Exotic’s friends and family, such as his first husbands, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, and his next husband, Dillon Passage. There’s Saff, an employee of Exotic’s who suffers the injury revealed in the trailer, and John Reinke, who has two prosthetic legs, though neither limb was lost because of his work at the park.

The documentary also introduces the audience to others in the tiger-owning industry. One example is Dr. Bhagavan Antle, or Doc Antle. According to the docuseries, he is a doctor of mystical science. Antle owns Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, which is run, as he put it, by a “cohesive family unit.” Family, of course, being him, his numerous female employees whose names he demanded be legally changed, and possibly his somewhere between three and nine alleged wives. They also do family yoga.

Last but not least, there’s Carole Baskin, one of the show’s biggest names. Baskin has many tigers of her own at Big Cat Rescue, her wildlife sanctuary aiming to save tigers from the likes of Exotic and Antle. Using social media, Baskin advocates against the private ownership of big cats, arguing that uneducated owners like Exotic and Antle are abusing their tigers and only keeping them around for financial gain. Baskin’s own quasi-zoo is intended to be a refuge for tigers raised under such circumstances.

Exotic disagrees. Loudly. Unfettered by Baskin’s digital following, he attacks her in every possible way, from bullying lookalikes in his music videos to calling her out in his “reality show.” He even hired someone to murder her, and though that plan failed, he is now serving a prison sentence for it. See? It’s not just a nature documentary after all.

Baskin might have a little murderer in herself too. Baskin’s first husband, millionaire Don Lewis, vanished without a trace after alleged violent arguments between the two in which Baskin threatened to kill him. Before his disappearance, Lewis made arrangements with his business peers in the event of his death and even filed for a restraining order against Baskin—and was denied. Perhaps most unsettling was his will, which in its very first paragraphs mentioned the possibility of his disappearance—kind of an unusual thing to have in your will. Some think Lewis ran off to Costa Rica; others argue that Baskin fed him to her tigers.

Since the release of Tiger King, interest in the Lewis case has risen significantly. Lewis’ former lawyer believes Lewis might have been murdered at his local private airport, according to Fox News.

The audience response on social media was quick and incredulous, but having a definitive opinion is hard when Tiger King continues to throw curveballs episode after episode. While some on Twitter were quick to judge Exotic’s polygamist ways, the plot thickened mere episodes after his three-way wedding with Finlay and Maldonado as it was revealed neither of the husbands were actually gay. Both shared that they didn’t really know why they married Exotic and pursued other relationships during the marriage. Finlay eventually left Exotic and moved away to marry the park’s female receptionist.

Antle fell under similar criticism for having multiple wives, though in interviews after the show’s release, he argued that the women were only his employees and not his girlfriends or wives. However, the documentary featured an interview with his former employee, Barbara Fisher, whose recollection of her employment was just as twisted and cult-like as how the documentary made Antle’s operation out to be.

Several other stars like Antle spoke out about their misportrayal in Tiger King following the show’s release. For example, Saff told Esquire that he prefers he/him pronouns and was consistently misgendered throughout the documentary and by colleagues at the park in general. Finlay also spoke about being portrayed as “drugged-out” when in fact he was five years clean at the time he was interviewed for the documentary.

The original creators of Tiger King capitalized on the audience’s infatuation and the characters’ feelings of unfinished business by releasing a final ‘after-show’ episode called “The Tiger King and I.” Set up as a discussion, comedian Joel McHale facilitated a conference call with Jeff and Lauren Lowe, Rick Kirkham, Josh Dial, Erik Cowie, Reinke, Saff, and Finlay. While the Tiger King himself couldn’t join the conversation from prison, the cast still shared the quirks that made Tiger King so contagious. For instance, as much as Exotic appeared to love his tigers, the show revealed that behind the scenes, he actually feared them. “He was scared to death of lions and tigers,” Kirkham said. “And in the shots that you see in there where he’s in there with the two tigers, the white one and the other one, the white one is blind and the other one is on tranquilizers. It’s idiotic to think he’s become famous as the ‘Tiger King’ when he’s so terrified of big cats.”

The characters also talked about how they felt the documentary, at times, sensationalized life at these cat parks. Saff shared about Exotic: “I’ve seen him give the jacket off his back for people. And I think that wasn’t highlighted enough. Joe did a lot of messed up stuff. That’s a fact, and that’s shown and now the entire world knows it. But he did a lot of good things, too.” Finlay added, “They never showed that we helped quite a few people with their last, dying wishes to be able to pet a tiger, pet a bear, pet a wolf. That gave me a different outlook on life, why a lot of people do what they do before they go and where I needed to be.”

Baskin stayed away from the after-show after how she was portrayed in the series and instead took to Big Cat Rescue’s blog to air her thoughts on the show. “[Tiger King] has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband. The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims. They did not care about the truth,” she wrote. Now, Baskin is allegedly receiving death threats to her and to her tigers.

To settle what Tiger King producers left unsettled even with the after-show, a new documentary from the Investigation Discovery Channel is in the works. Called Investigating the Strange World of Joe Exotic, the show is alleged to cover Lewis’ disappearance in great detail, among other oddities from Tiger King, all told from the perspective of Exotic. Netflix’s rival streaming service Hulu has its own Tiger King content, a forty minute collaboration between TMZ and Fox called TMZ Investigates: Tiger King – What Really Went Down? For an even crazier version of Tiger King’s tale, screenwriter Ryan Murphy is beginning work on a fictionalized adaptation of Tiger King with actor Rob Lowe rumored to star as Exotic.

Despite the complexity of the narrative, Tiger King is still a cultural phenomenon, even attaining meme-worthy status. Users on the social media app TikTok have taken to the platform to express their feelings about the show. For example, An emerging trend is the parodying of an already popular TikTok song — Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” — into a song solely about the show, changing the chorus line “I’m a savage” to “Carole Baskin.” Creators will play the parody and perform the original “Savage” dance, all while dressed as a character from the show.

Tiger King is perhaps best described as the show that nobody asked for, but that everyone needed. The next time statewide quarantining has you feeling moody, dive into the latest crime story capturing America’s attention.

And did Carole Baskin really kill her husband? Make your case in the comments below.