What Should Vegans Make of ‘Tiger King’?

‘Tiger King’ is a Netflix docuseries that recently became the Internet’s favorite distraction from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The hybrid investigative-entertainment show focuses primarily on Joe Exotic, a… strange character that many apparently found likeable. ‘Tiger King’ also has plenty of footage and interviews featuring other oddballs, the melodrama between them, and good old fashioned crime. It’s like a really long episode of Trailer Park Boys in which Ricky and Mr. Lahey have rival zoos, or something.

It may well be an impossible show to spoil — the entire series is highly entertaining even if you know all the details — but some of what follows may give away the plot.

I hesitated a bit to watch this, knowing that there was some element of animal abuse or neglect. I knew the tigers were kept in cages — already abusive to begin with — but didn’t know what else happened in the show. I can stomach quite a bit of animal abuse, I just don’t exactly go out of my way to watch it. After hearing all the buzz about it, and hearing from a reliable source that the animal cruelty aspects weren’t particularly horrific, I knew I had to see it for myself.

I really enjoyed it, the same way I enjoy other types of trashy reality TV. Most characters are clearly not great people, but their malfunctioning moral compass is often softened in one way or another. I often had the experience of hating the nemesis of whoever was presently on screen, only to feel sympathy for said nemesis the next time a clip of them was shown — and a renewed disdain for the prior interviewee. It was as emotionally confusing as it was amusing.

My biggest beef with the show is the way they managed to somehow paint Joe Exotic — by all accounts an abuser and exploiter of both humans and animals — as a sympathetic character a la Walter White. He’s also far more detestable than depicted in the show. His abuse of animals is apparently far more extensive than we are shown. From an interview with Rick Kirkham, who filmed Joe Exotic nonstop for years for a project that never came to fruition, in The Daily Beast:

“I witnessed him shoot and kill two tigers for no reason whatsoever, just because he was pissed off at them,” says Kirkham. “One of them tried to get at him in a cage, and so he said, ‘Hey Rick, watch this! Shoot this,’ and I videotaped him shooting one right in the head. The other one was, Joe had been in surgery and tried to wake up early, and he was so scared of one of the tigers that he shot and killed the thing.”

He adds, “It was typical in a given morning that if Joe was in a bad mood, he’d walk down “Tiger Row”—which is where all the tiger cages were—and we had wild chickens that ran around everywhere in the zoo, and he’d just be pissed and kick one of these chickens into the cage so that these tigers could just rip it to shreds. That was just the kind of guy he was. He enjoyed seeing people and animals hurt. He enjoyed it. He got off on it.”

The co-creators also left out one of Joe’s racist tirades.

And this is, of course, on top of what’s in the show: multiple clips of Joe referring to baby tigers as no more than a way for him to make money (“this is $5,000 right here,” Joe said to the camera as he held two cubs), his habit of roping in straight men as sexual partners, plying them with unlimited meth, and his rather serious death threats, among many other misgivings.

The fact that Joe is a malicious actor should have been clear from the start, but it seems as if the show’s creators wanted to get some of that stuff out of the way so they could spend more time on rendering Joe a sympathetic character.

At the same time that they made us feel bad for Joe Exotic, they managed to characterize Carole Baskin — the target of Joe’s death threats as a result of her fight for legislation to ban the practice of keeping big cats in cages — as a hypocrite. She’s the only prominent animal rights activist in the series, but much is made of the fact that she keeps cats herself. Hardly mentioned is the fact that she rescues big cats kept in zoos like Joe’s because they are unable to live in the wild, or that she does not breed tigers herself.

The fact that she and her husband used to breed tigers, juxtaposed with the failure to emphasize that she no longer does this, allows others, like Joe and Doc Antle (another tiger hoarder), to malign Carole Baskin as simply wanting all the tigers to herself. It’s absurd, and the show’s creators did little to nothing to combat this misperception, leading Carole to refer to the show as a betrayal.

Moreover, a significant portion of the show (including, from what I hear, a bonus episode that I have not seen yet) focuses on the disappearance of Carole’s ex-husband and allegations that she murdered him. I’ll contend that there are some oddities here, and interviews with her ex-husband’s family aren’t reassuring of her innocence, but there is no evidence of foul play and Carole has never been charged in her ex-husband’s death. For all we know, he really did disappear of his own volition and started a new life. I suspect there is a lot missing from the story on all sides.

Compare the way the show treats Carole’s ex-husband’s disappearance with Joe’s conviction for hiring a hitman to kill her. He publicly talked about killing her for years, in some truly vile (and, admittedly, entertaining) ways. He also privately discussed carrying out a murder, in more specific terms than a defense lawyer would like to contend with. He provided $5,000 to one of his staff to drive to Florida and carry out the hit. The hitman never made it to Florida. But Joe hired the man to do the deed, and for that he went down. The show does a lot of work to overcome these facts, managing to leave the impression that Joe was set up by others keen on taking over the zoo and kicking Joe to the curb. That’s pretty much exactly what happened, and the others involved in the scheme were granted immunity from their own criminal acts related to the murder-for-hire, but one shouldn’t forget Joe’s knowing role. Joe was convicted on the evidence; Carole was never tried. And yet, “Carole Baskin killed her husband” is a meme that overshadows all of Joe’s documented misdeeds. That’s a failure of the show’s creators.

I’ll admit, I find Joe Exotic to be an extremely entertaining character. Watching shows on television, it’s easy to think these people exist in a vacuum, without consideration of the very real consequences of their actions. There were bits of animal abuse that were remarkably disturbing, but most troubling of all was the way that an animal rights activist was slandered as a selfish hypocrite and murderer, against all the evidence. At the end of the day, animal rights activists — and vegans more generally — are used to others scrutinizing us for the slightest bit of hypocrisy. Focusing on searching for evidence that we don’t actually practice what we preach serves the function of removing the spotlight from the real issue: animal suffering.

Overall, I recommend seeing ‘Tiger King’, even if a lot of what I’ve written above spoils some of it for you. You’ll probably find it upsetting at parts like I did. You’ll probably get frustrated at times by the painstaking false equivalences. But at the end of the day, if you don’t think about it too much and enjoy it for the several-hours-long train wreck that it is, you might enjoy it, too.

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