Maybe you’ve seen the Tiger King meme that features a guy with a blonde mullet wearing a black and gold sequined dress shirt and two tigers in the background. It reads, “This is the genie that appears when you rub a 2 liter bottle of Mountain Dew.” Or maybe all your friends now start their group texts by exclaiming, “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens.” No matter where you turn, you’re bound to experience the world’s collective obsession with Tiger King, the most popular current TV series (according to Rotten Tomatoes). Why is everyone so into this tiger show? What’s it even about? Is it worth the hype? Let us demystify a few burning questions before you hit play.
What Is Tiger King Really About?
The Netflix docuseries spends about five years following Joe Exotic, an eccentric and larger-than-life zookeeper whose passion was to collect and breed wild cats, and his nemesis Carole Baskin. After learning about Exotic and his zoo (the GW Zoo, located in Oklahoma), Baskin (the founder of a wild cat sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue) spent years trying to take him down, no matter the cost. On the flip side, Exotic went out of his way in attempts to destroy Baskin’s image and perpetuate some concerning rumours involving her missing ex-husband. Virtual harassment quickly turned criminally nefarious.
The legal and emotional battle involved just about everyone who made contact with Exotic during those fives years. This includes other wild animal collectors around the country (who have peculiar personalities of their own, to say the least). The Tiger King filmmakers interviewed everyone from Exotic’s multiple husbands, to former zoo employees with some pretty damning intel.
At the end of the day, Tiger King means to expose the exploitive business of big cat ownership, and many would say that it succeeds.
Okay, But Is Tiger King Actually Real?
As absolutely outlandish as each new detail may seem, Tiger King is indeed very, very real. Granted, some of the subjects involved (including Carole Baskin and new GW Zoo owner Jeff Lowe) have claimed that directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin either “sensationalized” what really happened, or provided “salacious” and “biased” perspectives. However, Goode and Chaiklin spent five years filming Tiger King, and the production involved using Exotic’s comprehensive stockpile of seemingly unabridged footage he and his team amassed over the years when filming for his own shows.
Plus, the directors recently defended themselves to the Los Angeles Times and specifically shut down the complaints saying the series was hyped up purely for the sake of entertainment. “I would just say we were completely forthright with the characters. With any project that goes on for five years, things evolve and change, and we followed it as any good storyteller does. We could have never known when we started this project that it was going to land where it did," Chaiklin told the LA Times.
Why Is Tiger King So Popular?
Tiger King is truly nothing like we’ve ever seen before in the age of endless prestige television. There is practically no aspect of the series that’s predictable in any kind of way. Exotic himself is not who you would expect to be the “Tiger King.” He describes himself as a “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet,” he’s involved in a throuple, and he’s a country "singer" who stars in his own music videos on the side. And that’s just one of the characters in this saga.
Other key players like Myrtle Beach Safari owner Bhagavan “Doc” Antle recruits teenage apprentices who become trainers and, in some cases, his romantic partners. Exotic’s business partner and new GW Zoo owner Lowe is accused of sneaking tiger cubs into parties in Las Vegas. Former GW Zoo employee Kelci “Saff” Saffery lost a hand to a tiger and went back to work days later as a show of loyalty to Exotic. And that's only a fraction of what happens in this short docuseries.
You. Cannot. Make. This. Stuff. Up.
Are The Animals Hurt In Tiger King?
Now comes the difficult truth: Some animal lovers may not want to watch Tiger King because there is, unfortunately, some footage of apparent animal abuse. Tigers and other wildlife are frequently shown in cages, there is blatant aggression shown towards captive animals late in the series, and there is a shot early on of deceased exotic animals as part of a news story related to Baskin's efforts to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
While Goode and Chaiklin didn’t spend a lot of time covering the alleged animal abuse occurring in various zoos and safaris, there have been multiple allegations against the zookeepers who participate in the film. (These allegations have all be denied by the respective big cat owners.) Some of the allegations of animal abuse, while not shown, are extremely disturbing to hear about.
The somewhat-polarizing animal rights activist group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has documented the measures they have taken to either file lawsuits against certain roadside zookeepers, or rescue hurt animals. Some of these topics come up in the documentary and are difficult to listen to.
How Many Episodes Long Is Tiger King?
Tiger King is seven episodes long, and each of those episodes is about 45 minutes each, which means it will take up about five hours of your time. And heads up: Once you start watching, it’s almost impossible to stop.