In a time of enforced conformity, where we all have to stay inside and do as we’re told, Joe Exotic is truly the hero we need right now. The Netflix documentary miniseries Tiger King is number one in the US, and after only a few minutes of watching the first episode, it’s clear to see why. This guy is an American hero—big guns, big cats, and even a bigger ego.
Joe Exotic has a thing for dynamite and ammo, muscle-bound tattooed boys, his own blonde mullet, leather, and big cats. He made a lifestyle out of all of those things when he set up a private zoo in Wynnewood, OK, two decades ago, and proclaimed himself king.
Tiger King is about the wild world of big cats, breeding, exploitation, love of these animals, and the even wilder untamed personalities that people it. Each is the hero of their own story, ruler of their own wild animal preserve, and on the perpetual quest for how to earn a lucrative living from lions, tigers, and bears. Oh, my. And viewers are pretty much obsessed.
There’s basically no government regulation to the big cat industry, other than that they can’t be sold. According to the Endangered Species Act, sales are illegal, but according to Joe Exotic, you can get one for about $2,000.
Now and then we hear about tigers and big cats getting loose from some private owner out in the midwest, but mostly we don’t give too much thought to the fate of big cats in the US. The cubs are the most profitable, because they’re harmless up to 6 months old. After that, what happens to them is definitely a point of concern. Exotic has been accused of mistreating his cats once they're grown, and so have others in the private wild animal zoo industry.
The big cat subculture is intense. This is not something anyone really knew about, except for those who are inside it, until Netflix launched their original documentary. Joe Exotic (nee Schreibvogel) founded the park in 1999, in honor of his brother who was killed in a drunk driving accident. The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Zoo provided work for a crew of misfit animal lovers who laboured tirelessly in service to the big cats. They were loyal to Joe, too, because for many of them, he was the one who gave them a chance, a place to live, and a calling. And a guy like Joe, who has such a cult of personality, engenders loyalty.
“Animals don’t judge you so long as you’re really good at heart,” Joe Exotic opines. “They don’t care what you’ve done in your past.”
There are currently 5,000-10,000 tigers held in captivity in the US, compared with less than 4,000 in the wild, and according to Tiger King, there were, for a long time, three rival tiger parks. In addition to Joe Exotic’s, there’s The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), run by Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This guy has several girlfriends at a time, and changes their names to make them more exotic seeming as they wear tiger print unitards and pet tiger cubs for the audience. The ladies do it for the love of the wild animals.
“Nothing is cooler, sexier or more significant than a tiger,” Doc Antle said with a smile.
While Antle and Exotic are guileless about their big cat shows and zoos being a means for fun and profit, opponents of the private animal enterprises claim that they are abusive and should be stopped. Yet these opponents also make their living off of big cat commercialization. Big cat rights activists make their money off of exhibiting their caged, rescued animals.
Carol Baskin, who is definitely the villain in this Tiger King story, runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida, where her volunteer staff works for free. Her reported mission is to stop big cat animal abuse—while keeping her own rescued tigers penned in small cages. Baskin made it her vocation to destroy Joe Exotic, his park, his business, his parents’ finances, and his life. Eventually, it was Baskin that teamed up with the FBI to investigate a plot that Joe had hired an assassin to kill her, only to manufacture one where none existed. Yeah, big cat people are intense.
Baskin wasn’t wrong that Joe Exotic was out to get her. He made music videos about wanting to kill her, but mostly he made music videos about how great he was. He poured his entire life into caring for big cats and wild animals, and it was not altruistic. He was a breeder, and he did this for the money. But Baskin is not honest when she says that her motives are clear and unimpeachable. She earns her money from the cats, too, and her reasons for trying to put Joe out of business were simply so that she could earn more of it.
In our current age of social justice, it’s fascinating to see a story where the hero is against animal rights activists and claim that they are as much wild animal profiteers as those they condemn. Joe Exotic ran for governor of Oklahoma on an anti animal rights activists platform, and while he was eventually taken down by his own anger, narcissism, and greed, he lived his lived entirely on his own terms. Until now, when he’ll spend the next 22 years in jail, due to Baskin.
Although, not if Cardi B has anything to say about it. Taking a cue from Kim Kardashian’s mission of freeing the innocent, perhaps, the New York rapper has vowed to work for Joe Exotic’s release.
It was perfect timing on the part of Netflix to release this seven part documentary mini-series just while we're all self-isolating. It’s a real story, as opposed to the made up ones we all seem a little bored with right about now. It features a reality that most of us have never considered before, one that is even stranger than the one in which we are currently living. Instead of the driving currency of Tiger King being celebrity or fame, it is a normal guy who has created his own grandeur out of a scrap of land in the middle of Oklahoma and a love of big cats.
One thing that going inside has done for us is to make us realize that we are the heroes of our own stories, we are the main characters of our own lives. We have been obsessed with those influencers and celebs who tout their importance on our screens, with looking outward. Joe Exotic shows us just how to be the hero we want in our own lives. Even if the price is our freedom.