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.