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Cat Scratch Detraction

Netflix’s Tiger King is a sad example of how so much entertainment today is based on viewers feeling better about themselves by watching the ignorance or immorality of others.

A scene from Netflix's "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness". (Image: Screenshot/YouTube)

MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

One of the most overlooked sins of the current generation is detraction; when I bring the subject up in my senior morality classes, most have not even heard the term. The original Catholic Encyclopedia defines detraction as “the unjust damaging of another’s good name by the revelation of some fault or crime of which that other is really guilty.”

Our faith, in other words, forbids sharing others’ faults—even if what we say is true. Unfortunately, an entire genre—reality television—is based on this kind of entertainment. We feel better about ourselves by watching the ignorance or immorality of another. Even serious documentaries straddle this line, and Tiger King is no exception. Even without our current government-mandated quarantine, this might have been a popular series. But with so many people apparently having nothing better to do, this Netflix special became one of most popular programs on television.

Yet, it is not only bad for the poor animals involved, but for the souls of their human owners and indeed all of watching America.

The “Tiger King” in question is Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic.” As one can guess from his nickname and profession, Joe had a difficult childhood. He came “out” at seventeen, was forced to leave his home, and then worked several odd jobs before starting his own zoo in the late 1990s. By 2014, he had over 200 large cats, including lions, tigers, jaguars, and panthers, the most extensive collection in the United States. Not satisfied with that, he ran for president of the U.S. in 2016 and then, in 2018, ran under the name “Joe Exotic” in the primary election for the Libertarian party in the election for Governor of Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, he became a gay polygamist, lost his ownership of his zoo, and ended up in prison for hiring a hitman. The would-be victim in question was his arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue, who became rich when her second husband vanished under mysterious circumstances, and then used his wealth to fund a center for unwanted big cats. She also became an animal right activist, often harassing malls and other venues for hosting Joe and similar big cat enthusiasts. These are just two of a host of characters in Tiger King who live on the margins of society, ostracized for their love of all things furry and (mostly) orange.

The one characteristic shared by all of them is a lust for the spotlight. Like the animals they prize, Joe and Carole crave attention and admiration. Carole “employs” over seventy unpaid interns to run her facilities and color codes their uniforms based on rank and experience. Carole herself spends most of her time on social media or lobbying Congress. One fan calls her “the Mother Teresa of Tigers.” Joe hosts his own television channel and has released several country albums with songs including “I Saw a Tiger” and “Here Kitty, Kitty”, the latter featuring a Baskin look-a-like feeding her dead husband to the animals. This cult of personality, rather than the welfare of animals, drives everything they do.

When approaching any nonfictional programming that involves the sins of others, there is a responsibility on the part of the filmmakers and the audience to not glorify the wrong behavior. At the same time, it is necessary to make the material compelling in order to create a convincing narrative. This is a delicate balancing act that often overwhelms director Eric Goode. Prior to taking on the story of Joe Exotic, he was primarily known for his work with turtle conservation, not exactly great preparation for the loud, extreme lifestyles of Tiger King.

The documentary does bring to light two important themes that are constantly neglected by both Joe and Carole: human dignity and animal welfare. This is best illustrated by Kelci “Saff” Saffery, a veteran and worker at Joe’s zoo. In 2013, she was attacked by a tiger and had to have her left arm amputated. Despite this, she returned to work only five days later. “I want to give these animals a fighting chance,” she says. Joe, however, is only concerned about the bottom line. “I will never recover from this financially,” he mutters. Even at Carole’s zoo, the animals are kept in small cages and not returned to the wild. Both Carole and Joe are obsessed with “winning,” but Saffery points out that “nobody wins,” especially the animals. While zoos are not inherently immoral, most beasts are best left alone in their natural habitats.

These last few weeks have been hard on everyone, and many of us will, understandably, watch movies or shows that aren’t overly weighty or demanding. This does not excuse any of us, however, for not having a discerning eye. To watch Tiger King without such understanding would frequently put the viewer into a near occasion of sin, even if there is still something here that adds to a good and honest discussion about ethics and the treatment of animals.

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About Nick Olszyk 198 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".


  1. Thank you for explaining what Ive missed out watching. I had no idea.
    Was there some ancient Babylon mystery cult that inspired these folks?

    • mrscracker, even though occultism of any kind and variety (including resurrected Babylonian cults – and the Canaanite cult of Baal pushing abortion)) have had and do have influence on sinful and also grotesque, barbaric behaviors; nothing here in this article indicates even a remote connection with a demonic cult. Not so far. Demons feed greed, conflict, hostility, hatred, vengeance, etc. but here they seem to be acting by their usual Modus Operandi: as OPPORTUNISTS, taking the opportunity of the sinful choices of two human beings, a man and woman, with a feud between each other, and THEN using their influence to push it to criminal behavior.

      Having worked with some deranged prison inmates and having had a direct encounter with one who was actually possessed (with super strength and everything else), I still warn that trying to always find a demon or demons behind every person and/or ugly, horrid situation is wrong. We must be mature and discerning with the Holy Spirit. Seeing demons and cults everywhere someone does something stupid or worse denies our Free Will to choose God or sin and creates a circus atmosphere that makes us appear superstitious, childish and ridiculous to the world and to those God is attracting to Himself (in effect sabotaging their conversion).

      That misguided attitude also destroys the TRUE Spiritual warfare we must ALL be engaged in. For that, I very highly suggest the very mature and effective book: “Manual for Spiritual Warfare” by Paul Thigpen. May God bless you mightily, mrscracker, and all you hold dear!!

  2. Dear Phil,
    Thank you for your comments. I was only half serious about the Babylon mystery cult.
    Thank you for recommending Dr. Thigpen’s book. I actually know him and his family and he’s a wonderful writer and a lovely person.
    God bless you too Phil!

    • Okey dokey, mrscracker! I am very glad that you personally know Mr. Thigpen and can testify about his high personal qualities. Some people think that getting involved in Spiritual Warfare would make them look strange, creepy and too odd to bear (like cartoonish exorcists), but the TOTAL opposite is true. TRUE Spiritual Warriors are some of the highest quality, most truly loving people I have ever known anywhere. True Catholic Spiritual Warfare is for ALL Catholics and it will not turn us into extreme fringe Protestants or cultic people!!

      As Dan Burke says: … we grow stronger through battle and grow weaker through avoidance”. We are in a pitiful, tragic state in our Catholic Church today because we have become the Church of TOTAL AVOIDANCE of Conflict (spiritual or otherwise), a blind, pacifist, New Age-ish, complete mockery of the True Church JESUS founded.

      Here are two other great Spiritual Warfare resources for your benefit and the benefit of anyone who may read this: “Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits” by Dan Burke (emphasizes PERSONAL growth in holiness through spiritual warfare) and “Immortal Combat- Confronting The Heart Of Darkness” by Father Dwight Longenecker (emphasizes that the key to CHURCH-renewal-and-holiness is to become Spiritual Warriors).

      To summarize, have you noticed how some Protestants and much of the liberal mainstream media accuse the Catholic Church of being just another generic “cult” that believes in complete nonsense and severely restricts their followers’ behaviors? All of this is done to distract-and-cover-up their own TRUE fanatical cultic practices, centered on rabid intolerance. When we become True Catholic Spiritual Warriors, we turn the joke back on them because as JESUS said in Mark 3:23-24, Satan and his followers do not attack their very own and do not seek to be humble and holy (humility is the only virtue demons can’t imitate fully). No more avoidance, let’s roll!!

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