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Tiger King: Timely genius or just simply roaring mad?

Netflix's hit documentary about eccentric tiger breeders came along at just the right time - the perfect madcap antidote to the reality all around us, writes Ed Power


Strange days: Joe Exotic, the 'star' of Tiger King, with one of his tigers

Strange days: Joe Exotic, the 'star' of Tiger King, with one of his tigers

Strange days: Joe Exotic, the 'star' of Tiger King, with one of his tigers

Netflix's Tiger King has come, roaring, stomping and shaking its badly-dyed mullet, into our lives at the moment we needed it most. Since March 20, millions of house-bound Netflix subscribers have binged their way through this progressively more unhinged documentary about larger-than-life tiger keeper Joe Exotic and the conspiracy to murder that put him behind bars. It is the TV sensation of the coronavirus era.

The question now is - what next? Exotic has stated that he is "done" with animal rights nemesis Carole Baskin. He is currently serving a 22-year sentence for, among other crimes, hiring a hit-man to kill the owner of Big Cat Rescue (he continues to plead his innocence). But Joe insists he's past all that and wants to focus on clearing his name.

"I'm done with the Carole Baskin saga," he said last week from Forth Worth Prison, shortly before he was transferred to the facility's medical wing amid reports he may have contracted Covid-19. "It's now time to turn the tables and Joe gets out of jail a free man and exonerated from all of these charges."

Still, whether Exotic likes it or not, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaikin's documentary is beginning to feel like the beginning of something rather than the end. Rumours of a movie adaptation are pinging around social media, with names as far-flung as Michael Bay and Werner Herzog mooted as potential directors.

Brad Pitt has meanwhile been tipped by many as an obvious choice to play Exotic. Joe's ex-husband John Finlay wants Channing Tatum or Shia LaBeouf to portray him. And the internet hive mind has put forward Melissa McCarthy and Cathy Bates as potential Carole Baskins.

Baskin will certainly be appearing on screen - and sooner rather than later. A limited TV drama, starring Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon as the tiger fancier, is already in development, adapted from an earlier podcast about her story.

Tiger King has also drawn back the curtains on the huge exotic animal breeding industry in the US, the pet tiger population of which outnumbers the actual number of tigers in the wild in Asia. There is an inevitable backlash too, with claims the series glosses over the abuse of big cats in captivity and instead plays up the antagonism between Exotic and Baskin.

As Tiger King mania rumbles on and on, one thing is obvious. At any other moment in recent history, the Netflix smash would have been just too weird to swallow.

That was before Covid-19 turned everything upside down. In the aftermath, the deranged non-fiction tale of tigers, murder, mullets and mania, has become a huge comfort blanket for the world. This is Making A Murderer meets The Jungle Book and apparently is just what we need in our lives as Lockdown Purgatory extends into the far horizon.

Tiger King starts as utterly nutty and then, across its eight or so hours, turns ever more unhinged. As you watch, the real-life horror story unfolding outside our front doors fades, slightly, into the background. It's a TV panacea draped in tiger skin. After a solid day staring at the four walls, Netflix's grotesque world of rival tiger breeders feels like an escape hatch.


Bizarre tale: Carole Baskin

Bizarre tale: Carole Baskin

Bizarre tale: Carole Baskin

To recap, the story begins with Joe Exotic - real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage - as the custodian of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma and owner of one of the biggest private tiger collections in the world. He has a traumatic back story as a gay man rejected by his father only to find salvation in amateur magic and big cat shows.

Joe also sports a mullet that would make Eighties Bono jealous. And he has a budding career as a Kid Rock-adjacent singer-songwriter, though according to Vanity Fair, the tunes featured in Tiger King aren't even original to him. Instead he allegedly hired Vince Johnson and vocalist Danny Clinton to record the deranged ditties we see Joe perform in his cheesy music videos.

It's all completely barking. And that's before we are introduced to cult-like rival animal breeder 'Doc' Antle and his many wives or watch as Joe hires a helicopter to spy on Baskin's big cat sanctuary (he's convinced she has dozens of tigers hidden out of sight).

There is pushback too, however. The directors have faced accusations from America's Humane Society and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) of glossing over the abuse of tigers. The allegation is that Tiger King suggests that Joe went to prison for conspiring to murder when in fact he was additionally sentenced for multiple wildlife violations, including killing five tigers.

"The animals are the real victims who are caught up in this human drama," the Humane Society's Kitty Block said. "The antics of Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and others featured in the series have caused untold misery for countless animals."

Such assertions are rejected by the film-makers. Goode, who worked on Tiger King for over five years, said that there was a conscious effort not to preach to the audience and to instead let them make up their own mind.

"We had to thread that needle carefully so at the end... it wasn't preachy or the voice of god telling you how to feel about the cruelty and isolation of the tigers," he says.

"We wanted people to come to their own conclusions at the end and decide for themselves, and we hope they came away with the outcome that this was a very cruel and abusive practice."

And while Joe Exotic says he just wants to leave his past behind, not everyone is so sanguine. Baskin understandably resents Tiger King for rehashing old rumours that she killed her millionaire husband Don Lewis and fed him to tigers. Inevitably, police in Florida have come under pressure to reopen the 23-year-old cold case, with the local sheriff's department receiving six calls a day claiming to have new information.

"If we get some credible leads we'll dedicate the entire homicide section and beyond," said Sheriff Chronister, of Hillsborough County, Tampa.

"The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims," said Baskin. "The unsavoury lies are better for getting viewers. There is no short, simple way to refute so many lies," she wrote, adding that she felt misled about the direction of the documentary, as the directors told her it would be about exposing tiger abuse.

And if that wasn't enough drama, another larger-than-life figure from Tiger King, big cat enthusiast Jeff Lowe, has hinted that there may yet be more in the pipeline.

"Netflix is adding one more episode," Lowe said recently. "It will be on next week. They're filming here tomorrow."

Whether or not that's true - Netflix recently added a surprise bonus instalment of relationship romp Love Is Blind, so there is precedent - it's obvious Tiger King has struck a chord. Friday, March 20, the day it debuted, came as we were all coming to terms with the new normal of social distancing.

Just as a vast chunk of humanity was getting its head around these unprecedented developments, up pops a bizarre new show brimming with conspiracies, weirdos and big cats.

Life is crazy right now. But not as crazy as Tiger King. How oddly comforting that is.

Belfast Telegraph