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What the Meme-Filled Tiger King Buzz Misses: Abuse of People and Animals in the Exotic Pet Trade

joe exotic

While making jokes can be cathartic in such difficult times, and even heavy subject matter can be entertaining, the most important takeaways from Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness documentary seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle. While the filmmakers didn’t start out filming with the intent to mainly follow the feud between Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic, the undeniable but disturbing appeal of many of the powerful people in the narrative seemed to take over from the issues at hand, which boil down to one word: abuse.

The documentary has become the newest internet sensation. If you haven’t watched it, you’ve definitely heard of it. Other than the news about COVID-19, it seems to be one of the most talked-about topics in the country right now. Netflix is rather skilled at making documentary series that viewers can’t get enough of, filled with fascinating characters, and Tiger King is no exception. The mix of true crime, cults, and exotic animals makes this show a train wreck that you can’t help but watch.

The whole thing seems filled to the brim with content that makes it irresistible, and many viewers note how things continue to escalate from episode to episode. The series unexpectedly takes turns into polygamy, cult leader-like men, the man who inspired Scarface, drug abuse, and somehow last on everyone’s minds, tigers.

Given that the country and the world are facing such uncertain and scary times, and because most people are stuck at home, having something so wild to watch that it could distract from coronavirus news has been a relief for many people. It provided a nice escape from everything going on, and the over-the-top personalities on display made for easily meme-able and shareable moments.

But what gets lost in the entertainment of it is that abuse is a rampant theme in Tiger King. The most obvious, given that it’s about private exotic pet zoos and the exotic pet trade, is the abuse of animals. While the animals quickly become more of a background for the series, they are still there, and their treatment is awful. The first episode includes a clouded leopard, an animal who prefers temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, being held in a van in over 100-degree weather, and things just continue from there.

One especially excruciating scene involves Joe Exotic pulling newborn tigers, just barely birthed from the mother, away from her in order to start raising them to be props for photo ops. There are also many allegations of tigers being euthanized, especially by Doc Antle, once they age out of cubhood. Then, there’s Jeff Lowe, who would cart baby tigers around in suitcases in Las Vegas casinos. Even beyond the more obvious moments of abuse, it’s clear that many of the enclosures are not suitable for such large animals, and that these animals are being handled by people who have no idea how to care for them.

For those who are concerned about animal welfare, Tiger King brings to mind another recent documentary about what happens to animals who are used for entertainment: Blackfish. However, the responses seem to be vastly different. Blackfish had so many people upset and disturbed with how SeaWorld treated its orcas and their trainers. This backlash impacted the parks to the extent that it was even called the “Blackfish effect” and forced SeaWorld to stop letting trainers in the water with the orcas during shows.

Carole Baskin in Tiger King

Carole Baskin

Given that similar animal abuses, and risks to the humans handling the animals, are apparent in the world of Tiger King, it’s shocking and sad how little of the public discussion has focused on the abuse. Instead, everywhere one looks, there are memes about Joe Exotic and people calling Carole Baskin a bi***. The response, in many ways has painted Joe Exotic as a victim, with celebrities like Cardi B wanting to start a GoFundMe to free him from prison. 

People watching the documentary also seem to misunderstand the difference between places like Myrtle Beach Safari, owned by Doc Antle, and legitimate animal sanctuaries. While there is a lot to be said about Carole Baskin, the fact is that Big Cat Rescue is an accredited animal sanctuary where animals don’t interact with humans except on a minimal basis by handlers, and where no breeding is done. This is not to say Carole is an innocent party in other ways, but the sensationalism has taken over. There might be issues there, too, but there is a difference.

However, this leads to the other disturbing thing lost in all the memes: the fact that abuse of people is also rampant. There seems to be a sort of correlation between people willing to abuse animals and those willing to abuse people. The animal abuse and the exotic pet trade is a big issue, but we also shouldn’t ignore the way people like Joe and Doc treat those closest to them.

First of all, the treatment of women in this documentary is appalling. Regardless of Carole Baskin’s own issues and possible crimes, a man who violently pretends to murder a woman using a blow-up sex doll as a stand-in has serious issues with how they view women.

Another sexist tiger owner from the series is Jeff Lowe, who took over from Joe Exotic to try to “save” the G.W. Zoo. He’s another much older man who dates very young women. While he’s married to his wife, Lauren, he also seems to use her to get other young women into bed with them. His comments about how a then-pregnant Lauren needed to lose weight after the birth of their child and help him find a new, hot nanny were particularly disturbing.

Doc Antle in Tiger King

Doc Antle

And then there’s Doc Antle.

This is a man who is known to have teenage girls come “work” at his zoo for way below minimum wage. From there, it’s clear that he grooms many of these girls, who are still minors, and ends up sleeping with and dating many of them. One woman interviewed in Tiger King, Barbara Fisher, details how all of these women have worked so hard and been groomed so completely that she was coerced into getting breast enhancement surgery, and she mainly went along with it to get a couple days of rest.

Joe Exotic, meanwhile, consistently pursued much younger men, including current husband Dillon, and seemed to find vulnerable young people who struggled with things like drug abuse. Joe had a pattern of going after some of the most vulnerable people, and this is even worse when it comes to his employees. He would find the most vulnerable people who had just gotten out of prison and had struggled with substance abuse, and then use them for work. The fact that they had nowhere else to go and that he paid them so little shows the kind of manipulation and control he had over people.

Despite the obvious grooming, manipulation, and even abuse that most of these men showed towards the young people they dated, and their employees, this also seems to be the lost in the shuffle of memes about Joe’s unusual wedding ceremony.

So, the question here is “Who’s to blame?” The internet is always going to be a place where people share jokes and memes, but it’s also a place where activism can happen. The problem seems to be with the framing of the documentary series itself. Instead of casting a more critical lens on the main characters, they are presented as very weird but also kind of likable, especially Joe Exotic. Carole Baskin becomes the only villain, and the real victims, the animals and the side characters, aren’t highlighted. It seems those in charge of presenting this documentary got too caught up in the wrong things, too.

Kelci "Saff" Saffery in Tiger King.

Saff

One example of the filmmakers getting it wrong is with Saff. He works at G.W. Zoo and gets his arm bitten off by a tiger, and it’s clear he isn’t treated well at his job. While the issues with how Joe treats people are clear here, many people are questioning why Saff was portrayed as a female lesbian and misgendered, when Saff is a transgender man.

While, recently, more people and publications have been pointing out the disturbing animal abuse at Joe, Doc, and others’ hands, it might be too little too late. The damage seems to have been done by the tone and direction the documentary took, ultimately due to the filmmakers and Netflix. Instead of being a rallying point to have people calling to ban the ownership of exotic pets and discussions about the nature of abuse, people seem more interested in viewing the figures in the doc the way they do fictional characters, finding men like Joe Exotic ridiculous and hilarious, rather than abusive.

There are many victims here, and none of them are Joe Exotic.

(images: Netflix)

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Amanda Steele is a freelance entertainment journalist who splits her time between Salt Lake and NYC. Her work has appeared in Screenrant, Culturess, The Beat, and many more. She would definitely die for Captain America.