A new docuseries on Netflix, fully titled Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness but titled onscreen and often simply known as Tiger King, is currently taking the world by storm. Compulsively watchable and at times shocking, crazy and almost downright unbelievable, this docuseries is already a smash hit. And just like your favourite slot machine online, the characters are absolutely enthralling to watch.
Meet Joe Exotic
The subject of the show is the unbelievable world of big cat keepers in the United States, which is both larger and more interconnected than most people can imagine. Joe Exotic, real name Joseph Schreibvogel, sits at the centre of it all.
Perhaps the best way to describe him is as a fabulist, whose every outfit involves fringe vests, bedazzled shirts, or both. His personality is as large as the hundreds of big cats that he keeps in a private zoo.
In the first few episodes of the show, we learn that Joe is the eponymous Tiger King. He is partially self-styled into this persona, courtesy of a strange magnetism and a life that has dealt him some character-shaping blows, and partially created by reality television producer Rick Kirkham.
Kirkham planned to release his own reality series about the Tiger King, going as far as building a huge throne for Joe to sit on to promote the image and, in Kirkham’s own words, to feed the keeper’s ego. Initially, Joe seems to have great love for his big cats and to treat them well – albeit in captivity. He seems rugged, real and raw in a way that is quintessentially North American – and almost lovable in his apparent authenticity.
Enter Carole Baskin
Joe’s great nemesis is Carole Baskin, a wild cat conservationist and activist. Baskin has worked for years to end the captivity of large felines in the United States, and has enjoyed some success in her lobbying efforts.
Baskin’s Tampa, Florida sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, provides homes to tigers that have been legally confiscated. The individuals who give up the animals have sign contracts saying they will never own another wild cat, or even be photographed with one. The volunteers at the sanctuary go through lengthy training, and are prohibited from ever touching the animals. In short, if you were a tiger who had been born into domesticity, Big Cat Rescue is where you’d want to end up.
As you can probably imagine, Baskin and Joe have very little time for each other. The show documents the feud that they’ve been locked in since 2009, showing its incredible escalation. By the end, they’ve both spent small fortunes on legal fees and Joe has publicly slandered Carole several times. He even goes as far as heavily implying that she killed her first husband and then fed his body to her tigers.
Though all circumstantial, there is actually evidence that Baskin may have had a hand in her husband’s still-unsolved disappearance. In the spirit of the current streaming docuseries craze and to capitalise further on Tiger King’s momentum, a new documentary re-examining the case, has just been announced. This will air on the Investigation Discovery channel, and will look closely at the case that police reopened after the Netflix series.
The Plot Gets Even Thicker
If you thought that the big cat keepers’ rivalry and Baskin’s possible role as a murderess was all this fantastical series had going for it, you’d be wrong. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that Joe is a country music singer who has released two albums, whose most entertaining song describes Carole feeding her husband to tigers and is titled Here Kitty, Kitty.
Or the fact that all of Kirkham’s footage was lost in a mysterious fire after he fell out with Joe, which happened to occur at Joe’s zoo and which also burned several alligators alive. Oh, and there’s the small detail that Joe himself is currently serving a prison sentence after being convicted of murder-for-hire to end Carole’s life.
And honestly, that’s just for starters. The show has been criticised for its unfair portrayal of Baskin and her conservationist efforts, but with wildly improbable characters at every turn, it makes for truly dazzling viewing. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why it has already spawned so many dark-but-memorable memes.