Tiger King was unleashed onto the world on Netflix at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time COVID-19 forced most Americans to stay indoors for the majority of their day, this show presented itself as the odd and outlandish escape needed. It’s now #1 on Netflix and has twitter filling to the brim with all the memes needed for Americans to take a break from the bleak corona news cycle. However, America’s newest escapist true-crime favorite also reveals the same systematic corruption that is to blame for the United States’ inability to protect its citizens during this pandemic crisis. The systemic corruption of care industries by the profit motive puts vulnerable populations at risk.
Tiger King shows the depravity of capitalist society and culture. In the capitalist framework, it is a person’s right to possess, exploit, and profit from all things natural, including exotic and dangerous animals. In the wildlife rescue and zoo industries, even the noblest goals slowly get eroded by a profit motive. Capitalism gives way to commodity fetishization, but what happens when the commodity is an animal?
Profit in Breeding
The main abuse explored against the animals in the series is cub petting — a subtle form of exploitation that wouldn’t be immediately identified as abuse until the story is allowed to play out. Cub petting is the practice of allowing people to cuddle and take pictures with the baby cubs of various big cats, specifically tigers. When big cats are still babies, they are incredibly profitable because of cub petting. However, most big cats are only safe to be used in that way for up to 12 weeks. By that time, they are far too dangerous to be allowed near people and also far more expensive. A full-grown tiger costs up to $10,000 a month to feed. If the profit motive is a driving factor in keeping big cats, the result is a breeding factory of tigers that are used for a short time and then quickly become expensive to care for without a way to make money off of. A direct outcome of this unregulated breeding is the unearthed corpses of full-grown tigers found on the property of Joe Exotic, the eccentric protagonist of Tiger King.
In Tiger King, we witness an industry that claims to take care of exotic animals, treating them instead like cattle on factory farms. Exotic isn’t the only zoo owner taking advantage of this lucrative loophole in animal welfare protections. Doc Antle, the owner of T.I.G.E.R.S., another prominent figure in the zoo industry, makes large profits from his cub petting business. Female tigers are forced into breeding repeatedly and then have their cubs torn from them immediately. One scene shows zookeepers dragging a minutes old tiger cub from his mother underneath a fence to be instantly put into the hands of a tourist with some dollars to burn. The breeding is often done haphazardly, leaving many of the cubs with genetic abnormalities, like a cross-eyed white tiger featured on the show. Tiger cubs in the wild spend up to two years with their mother to develop properly. If the industry truly cared for the animals in their zoo they would be at their mothers’ side, not in cribs crowding Joe Exotic’s hallways and living room.
Another insidious solution to the overcrowding problem is selling the cubs to get them out of the park. Tiger cubs can be sold from anywhere between $3k-10k. The Endangered Species Act bans the possession and purchase of endangered species, but animals that are bred in captivity like the breeding factories of roadside zoos aren’t well regulated. State by state, the laws vary as to whether or not it is legal to have a big cat as a pet. Therefore, once a person sets up a roadside zoo, they have easy access to the “means of tiger production” and can easily distribute their goods across states with very little oversight from the government. Hundreds of exotic cats are then thrust into small backyards and taken care of by inexperienced and uneducated owners, unable to provide the necessary environment for an exotic cat to lead a safe and healthy life.
Profit in Exploitable Labor
Joe Exotic was an exploitative boss who underpaid the vulnerable population that worked his zoo, in order to realize higher profits for himself. Exotic preyed on those that were recently out of prison, led lives on the edges of legality, or were simply outsiders. He would use the cultural capital that comes from handling exotic creatures. He then used his employees’ love for the animals to work them up to 14 hours a day, six days a week and house them in dilapidated and infested homes, paying them only $150 a week. This comes out to roughly $2 an hour. One employee admitted that his main source of food was from the spoiled meat that was donated from Walmart, intended for the tigers. Exotic was known to use the gun always stationed on his belt as a form of intimidation. He would point his gun at staffers and even shoot at the sky or dirt nearby. These workplace harassments became normalized and would add to the curated “wild card” aesthetic Exotic successfully marketed — an aesthetic that Tiger King deploys for its own purposes of entertainment.
Doc Antle uses a similar model of labor exploitation but he had a slightly different character. Antle seemed to only hire young and impressionable women. When laborers are younger, they tend to lack the experience necessary to know what is normal in a working environment and don’t have the background of speaking up for themselves and their fellow co-workers. Antle would use his position as an older, prominent man in the animal world to sexually harass many of his employees. One employee claimed that the way to get ahead in his zoo was to have sex with Antle. Contrary to Exotic’s ‘wild card’ persona, Antle utilized a pseudo-spiritual aesthetic and eloquence to hide his predatorial patterns. Whichever tactic is chosen, a marginalized population was paid low wages, asked to work long hours, and faced constant workplace harassment.
In the time of #MeToo, Exotic and Antle both practiced polyamory and used their zoos as a way to attract vulnerable men and women, choosing their romantic partners from their employees. This abuse of power in the workplace was sensationalized in the documentary, simply adding it to the tally of strange and unusual behavior that was both turned into comedy and vilified in equal parts. However, these men’s form of polyamory was based on a power imbalance and is just another example of men using their position to ensnare younger men and women into abusive and manipulative relationships. Antle’s sexual partners were able to move up the corporate ladder in his zoo and gain access to McMansions on his property, while those that didn’t move forward sexually with him were left to languish in the more inhospitable residences. Exotic’s partners were given drugs and presents and in return were unable to leave the zoo’s parameters and held to a constricted life. Tiger King falls in line with most American television and movies that portray polyamorous relationships as inherently based on lies and deception, and committed only by depraved and villainous people. In the documentary, the husbands and wives remained mostly silent actors, only speaking for their more powerful partner’s actions and never given a voice of their own.
Profit in Publicity
Joe Exotic is a character made for reality television. Television’s priority is for the show to make a profit and antics like Exotic’s are solid gold for producers. In television, especially in reality television, if a character is funny enough, their actions are admissible. The moral grey area of entertainment is made all the more callous when the viewer remembers that the producers intended to make a film calling out for-profit zoos and exotic animal abuse and instead made a six-episode love letter to the animal abuser himself.
Exotic as a character is a very strange figure. His gay, redneck, libertarian, maniac energy is hard not to get entranced by. Tiger King’s release was finally able to give Exotic the fame and infamy he always wanted, but he had been attempting fame for years. He created an online series taped nightly and even convinced a reputable producer to come and take it over. The producer leveraged that as a way to gain access to Exotic’s day to day life in order to create a reality television program. Rick Kirkham, an early victim of Exotic’s abuse, was able to see what the world sees now, an incredibly entertaining, and yet immoral, man. Kirkham, similarly to the Tiger King’s directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, looked past the questionable legality of Exotic’s antics to gain access to all the footage necessary to create a hit and profitable reality television program. However, Kirkham’s story ended with his whole life savings burning up in the form of video equipment and all of his footage in an arson attack at the park that also killed all the crocodiles in their enclosure next door. It is highly probable that Exotic himself set the fire because of the realization that many of the events caught on tape, such as illegal veterinary procedures done by untrained zookeepers, would put him in a legally precarious position. Kirkham admitted himself into a mental hospital after this all happened, saying that he has been haunted by the abusive and manipulative behavior in the zoo and his hand in it ever since. Goode and Chaiklin succeeded where Kirkham could not by creating a hit program, but in doing so they became intertwined with glorifying an abuser.
Exotic’s youtube channel on most nights had one target in mind: Carole Baskins. He featured a sex doll version of her on the show, mailed snakes to her home, and read her diary aloud. He threw grenades and bullets at effigies of Baskins in rage-filled misogyny. He even made a banger of a song and accompanying music video depicting her murdering her husband and feeding his remains to the tigers, Here Kitty Kitty. Baskins, an animal rights activist, and wealthy non-profit CEO, had made it her life’s mission to shut down zoos like Exotics.
Baskins is a morally complex person that should not be highlighted as the Lawful Good to Exotic’s Chaotic Evil. She also has exploitative practices in her operations, such as relying solely on unpaid, volunteer work fueled by people’s drive to help. Quite frankly, Baskins uses many of the exploitative tactics that the non-profit industry is rarely taken to task for. Specifically, she highlights the moral failings of the often wealthy CEOs fronting charitable organizations. However, in the case of shutting down Exotic’s zoo, Baskins was on the right side. Still, many viewers finished this program and concluded that Baskin and Exotic’s sanctuaries were similarly abusive towards the animals and could not tell the difference between the overt profiteering and abuse in Exotic’s zoo and Baskin’s well taken care of sanctuary. Quite frankly, the documentarians should be held accountable for this takeaway. The original premise of helping shine a light on roadside zoo abuse was thrown away to instead feature the zany actions of one man. It was a clear choice of profit over principle because zany actions sell. The moral high ground rarely creates the #1 show on Netflix with a live-action dramatization in the works.
The animal abuse that was featured in this documentary is small potatoes to what actually happened. Live animals such as chickens and cats were thrown into cages to be eaten. Animals would starve to death as a result of over breeding and overcrowding. Goode and Chaiklin, the directors, chose not to feature these scenes in favor of shots of Exotic handing out condoms with his face on them. Instead, we get celebrities — including the President’s son and Cardi B — clamoring to #FreeJoeExotic. Justice for the animals and people hurt by Exotic has been postponed in order to make a few extra dollars through someone else’s infamy.
This kind of abuse can only happen in a capitalist system which insists that people find a way to profit off of animals. When people are allowed to create profit margins in structures that are intended to care for animals, profit becomes the driving force, not care. In our capitalist society, humans are told that they can and should hold complete domain over nature without allowing for any reflection on the natural world’s own needs. Humans see the natural world only as a means to build wealth and social capital. Without the implementation of a planned economy, taking only what mankind needs from nature in a sustainable way is left to the wayside and instead, natural resources, such as animals, are exploited in an unregulated fashion that leads to all kinds of abuse. Even the employees at these zoos, the only truly likable characters of the whole show, saw their love for these animals leveraged to force them into exploitative labor conditions. The rights of the animals themselves became an afterthought by the very forces in charge of their living conditions. Tiger King failed its subjects, the tigers. We will never give animals a fair chance to live peacefully when greed is at play.