Tiger King - Murder, Mayhem & Madness, devised and directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, 2020
I imagine the reason Tiger King has been such a televisual phenomenon is because, quite frankly, it resembles the jaw-to-floor smashing train wreck you witness when watching a press conference by Donald Trump. In fact, although Trump is not (to my recollection) mentioned once in the 7 hour long episodes of Tiger King, I am convinced it has been devised explicitly as a comprehensive satire on Trumpism. It explains exactly why a certain kind of stubborn sympathiser and supporter elevated Trump to became the voice of megalomaniacal egotistical narcissism: he is a cohesion of every one of the self-centered, money obsessed, social media addicted, morally depraved, right-wing minded degenerates depicted in Tiger King. They all share his lust for greed, his disregard for ethics, his tendency towards threats, his creative drive for conspiracy and his sheer genius for personifying all that is crude and obnoxious about certain members of the human race. Not to mention a penchant for weirdness, cultism and downright creepiness.
The eponymous Tiger King is a flamboyant gay cowboy moron named Joe Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a "Joe Exotic." The name is so wannabe redneck porn-star kitsch it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Joe is a peroxide-bleached mullet-styled handlebar-mustachioed taboo-emblazoned leopard-and-leather-print wearing hillbilly who dons about a billion earrings and piercings (including, yes, one there) and struts (sometimes limps) around with blind cocky arrogance while he bullies and berates the odd assortment of ex-felons, cons, pimps, hustlers, druggies and boozers he has rustled up off the streets to work for basically beer money and a flea-ridden pit in a cockroach infested trailer at his so-called zoo, a big-cat sanctuary in Oklahoma. (For "sanctuary" read "prison" - itself a euphemism - throughout this piece.) Joe is not only hopeless as a zoo-keeper but downright incompetent and insanely cruel. It is more than obvious he loathes the animals he keeps: an assortment of tigers, lions, bears and alligators. Yes, he tries to come across as an animal lover, but he is a terrible actor and the fake tears he occasionally sheds and the odd sniff he makes to evoke emotion are patently false: one employee even remarks that he keeps an onion in his pocket to produce tears on demand. No, this is a hideous, cruel and crazed man whose only loves in life amount to money, power, fame and himself.
He breeds the cats for money and sells them about the country, sometimes to that other bunch of vacuous immoral imbeciles - celebrities. The cats are a source of income: dollar bills and nothing else. People - by which I mean basically scum and slobs of the same kind of mindless, self-indulgent narcissism as Joe and co - come and pay handsome money for the chance to have a selfie taken with a cute tiger cub so they can post it on Instagram and generate "likes" and thus feed their addiction for feeling wanted, needed, appreciated and adored. Whatever. These poor infant cats get whipped away from their mothers and treated like toys, squeezed and over-hugged and handed around in a way which must be utterly terrifying for a baby animal not more than, in some cases, a few hours old. When the cubs outgrow their cartoon book fluffiness, and, surprise-surprise, don't end up resembling something wise and stately out of The Jungle Book, they are sentenced either to a life of misery as breeders in a tiny filthy over-crowded cage where they are sometimes only intermittently fed off the back of a truck which comes hauling in past-their-sell-by-date chunks of meat from Walmarts or are, the film claims, euthanized - by which I mean Joe Exotic whips out one of his many guns from a staggering assortment of arsenal he seems to horde and puts a bullet between their eyes. Joe carries a revolver on him at all times and is seen to fire off rounds of a machine gun randomly about the place. Oh, and he has penchant for blowing things up, burning things down or filming himself firing bullets into effigies of his many equally hateful enemies: nice!
Some of his staff, trying their best to reform their wayward pasts, come across as genuine in their care for the animals and concern over the depravity of their boss, while others evidently couldn't care less. There are some touching scenes which centre around the lives of these people who, despite what is clearly an aberration of existence, are determined to put in an honest day's work. One particular zoo-keeper, a brave trans war-veteran, Saff Saffery, who has an arm mauled by a big cat and chooses to have it amputated and return to work within a week because he knows the cats rely on his care, is the show's one likeable and genuine person. We feel real sympathy for his plight, trying to do his level best in what are clearly appalling working conditions. He has a certain stoic dignity to his interviews which is completely absent from almost anyone else. Others, such as Joe's two tattoo covered toy-boy "husbands", Travis Maldonado and John Finlay, hailing from troubled backgrounds, appear less then engaged with their surroundings, possibly on account of their crippling meth addictions, possibly on account of the fact that neither is really gay and only seem to go along with the farce to sponge what they can off Joe. Travis clearly has mental health issues and shoots himself in the head in the middle of the "sanctuary" one day, which prompts one of the sleaziest funerals you will ever witness, overseen by Joe wearing a priest's outfit, while John is busy having it off with the female employees and is eventually honest enough to admit the whole charade with Joe is a hoax. A later addition, Dillon Passage, seems at least to have a softer heart and a slightly more sensitive persona.
Oh and did I mention Joe's cringe-worthy career as a country and western singer in which he croons about the cats and his two husbands, often having the whole pile of them - cats included - making out in weird forests and shrubbery? Better not go there. Plus, he is so self-deluded, he embezzles money from his zoo to run for president in 2016 and then for state governor where part of his campaign merchandise includes branded condoms with his face emblazoned all over them, as if that is really appealing. I mean was he trying to advocate for unwanted pregnancies and STDs?
Tiger King is not just about Joe. It seems that to be certifiably crazy is a legal requirement to own a zoo in America. There is Bhagavan Antle, a self-professed guru, who runs a creepy cat "santuary" where he has meticulously crafted a cult personality which seems to include luring very young woman to work for him for next to nothing while being subjected to what are insinuated as his odious advances. Talk about the definition of a right-wing fascist. Then there is Caroline Baskin, who proclaims to be an animal activist who is trying to put an end to big cat breeding and abuse, but whose own "sanctuary" seems to be no less ghastly than the men like Joe Exotic who she has made bitter enemies of. This is a woman who rakes in millions by promoting her "sanctuary" on annoyingly insidious YouTube videos, apparently not realising that by promoting big cats, you are only advertising them as desirable pet objects which, one would think, is what she ought not to be doing if she really wants to put an end to big cat breeding. But of course she doesn't - she is as fake as the rest of them. And, to boot, seems dubiously connected to the murder and disappearance of her first husband whose money she of course pocketed after he took a hike. Quite honestly, if she didn't murder him, then the man was wise to leg it from her as fast as possible.
Of course things at the zoo go pear-shaped and to bail himself out Joe falls in with a dodgy investor, Jeff Lowe, who hails from Las Vegas where he stuffs baby big cats into suitcases and smuggles them into expensive hotel suites so he can use them as bait to lure young women to his orgies. As he proudly announces, "a little pussy gets you a lot of pussy." (See what I mean about this ultimately being a satire on Trump?) Lowe's sidekick is a horrifically frightening psychopath who seems to do all his dirty work for him and who Joe finally hires to go and murder his arch-nemesis Carol Baskin. This is where the main thrust of the series lies but it is well foregrounded by depicting the seething hatred which develops between the two antagonists and includes poisonous rattle snakes stuffed in post boxes, threats of grenade attacks and all other manner of your typical American excess of vitriol and loathing. Do people in these first-world countries really have no real problems in life to deal with? Of course the plot intensifies when yet another creepy business associate of Jeff Lowe's (sprouting the worst haircut in the history of TV by some margin) double crosses everyone and does a deal with the FBI to implicate Joe in a for-hire murder plot against Carol. Bang, Joe is locked up and indicted on 19 charges, many of which rightly stem from cruelty to animals.
Joe gets 22 years in a cell which is still probably a damn sight better than the prison conditions he subjected his poor animals to all those years. At least the federal government will feed him three times a day which is more than he ever bothered to do for them. I could not think of a better fate for such a hideous specimen. But there is, as always, a problem: as of yet, the net has not closed on the other cast of criminals who surely deserve to face the music for their own part in a nation-wide industry which exemplifies the gluttonous heart of a system in which too many people acquire too much money by doing obscene and inhuman deeds to get it. What makes it worse is that there are so many people who provide an ample market for this kind of rampant greed. Are they all so stupid? Apparently there are 10 000 tigers in captivity in America; more than double the population of wild tigers in their natural habitats. This documentary focuses on the big cat trade, but what does it say about the metaphor of the tiger or the lion or the panther as an indicative statement about a certain kind of American mentality? Why is there this obsession with owning what is the biggest, the most extreme, the most sensational? What does it say about the rampant capitalist mind-set which apparently realises no limitations, respects no boundaries, pays no heed to the natural world and its natural specimens? Animals suffer because men (and many women) with big egos want to play around with expensive toys they have no idea how to handle or care for, who only become the ultimate fashion accessory, utilised and abused to further their online status, to massage fractured egos, to mask fragile neuroses.
As I said, it is this kind of garish mindset, so apparently in-bred into such a large proportion of the population, which explains the very reason Trump sits in the highest office in the land. Of course not every American is remotely akin to the likes of Joe, Carol, Jeff and all. Of course the vast majority are decent, moral, upright people, but there is still something telling about the statement Tiger King subtly makes about that element of society just large enough and simmering enough as an undercurrent force to have surfaced and wrecked havoc on the fabric of the country's dignity. The old adage is apt: a country ultimately gets the leader it deserves.