Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness review: A wild story that appals and moves you at the same time
If a blend of crime exposition and stories behind wildlife owners and ‘animal rescuers’ interests you, the madness of the Tiger King is sure to take you on an insane ride
It’s not often that a documentary about a crime, whose legal proceedings are still in progress, comes as a revelation, Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is not only that but also everything that the title suggests.
In the telling of a decade-long feud between Joseph Maldonado Passage, popularly known as Joe Exotic and Tiger King, and Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, allegations against several others and the horrors of exotic wildlife trade are exposed, leaving viewers distraught over the fate of the captive animals in their hands. The reminder that the documentary is an exposition not just of past events, but what is still happening in the real world, gives an added rush to the series.
If a blend of crime exposition and stories behind wildlife owners and ‘animal rescuers’ interests you, the madness of the Tiger King, who is described as a ‘completely insane, gay, gun-toting drug addict fanatic’, which stems largely from his hate for the rich ‘wildlife rescuer’ Carole Baskin is sure to take you on an insane ride.
What many thought would be a ‘crazy little comedy between exotic animal owners’ spirals out of control after people’s egos come to the forefront and turns appalling in scenes where Joe releases a photo of Big Cat Rescue volunteers posing with dead rabbits and posts a photo with a dead horse’s penis to get back at Carole.
The documentary takes a darker turn as it delves into details of Carole’s missing ex-husband. Joe claims Carole ‘acquired most of her wealth after the mysterious disappearance of her millionaire ex-husband Don Lewis’ and also alleges she fed the remains of the missing man to the tigers. And in every episode, even as we hear people justify the things they do, there are parallel frames of wild animals being handled by children, posed with for pictures, walked on leashes, and growling from the cages as they are poked at, all serving to remind us of the real victims in the madness.
Considering the sensitivity surrounding the matter and the influential people involved, Tiger King, which was filmed over a period of five years, has been scripted delicately from the perspective of the people involved, carefully avoiding any comment from the makers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin. Any of these people could be lying or telling the truth and it’s left up to the viewers to choose what they think might be the ‘truth’. In this attempt to provide a view from all sides, the seven-episode documentary fails to show one complete story.
From ‘euthanising’ wild animals to attempt-to-murder charges, there’s a long list to mark Joe out as a villain, but Carole Baskin’s double standards end up creating pity for the Tiger King, who is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for hiring a hit-man to kill her. At the end of the series, despite everything that Joe has done, he appears excessively penalised as Carole has the last laugh after spending millions of dollars — part of which also seems to be raised through donations for animal rescues — on lawsuits and online propaganda.
Most people in the series seem unapologetic about the things they do and considering the worldwide audience on Netflix, a little background into US laws would have helped viewers better understand the gravity of the crimes in question.
While allegations that the series ‘deviates from being a documentary ’ and is ‘sensationalised entertainment’ are not unfounded, the novelty of the drama in a documentary like this is undeniable. All the people involved have been consciously building a narrative online by shooting videos, recording for reality shows, and using social media profiles and websites to gain fame and raise donations. Given this, the drama is almost unavoidable.
But not everyone in the series is wild and irrational. When we hear the perspective of Kelic Saffrey who returns to work at Joe’s zoo in 2013 even after a terrifying tiger attack, there is a tone of empathy towards animals, and a commitment to the cause, that most others lack.
In the guise of helping animals, what really drives all these people is money and feeling the power in keeping the big cats under their control. The bigger message that the series leaves me with is that the world doesn’t need a Joe to save endangered species by breeding them in captivity or a 'rescuer' like Carole whose double standards are just as likely to hurt the animals. The real fight is for a future in which humans make way for animals to live in their natural habitats, where they rightfully belong.