The Tiger King is as Crazy as the Hype Says it is, but it Hides a Secret Tragedy Underneath

Like many of you, I’m hunkered down at home during the worst zombie apocalypse ever, trying to keep my kids and my parents from getting COVID-19 and, as a result, I’ve been watching a lot more television than I usually do. One of the shows I’ve been watching is The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, a trashy documentary that boldly exploits in ways that you would normally see on episodes of The Simpsons.

I started watching this show on the recommendation of my brother and so, my mom and I have made this our nightly ritual after I send my kids to bed. Within two episodes, I was watching a gay polygamist redneck zookeeper marry two dudes at once and I’m thinking… what the heck am I watching and why can’t I stop?

The truth is, this series is like a slow motion car wreck involving the worst people you could possibly imagine, so watching the cars crumple and the bodies go flying gives you a satisfying sense of schadenfreude. Joe Exotic, the subject of the documentary, is a manipulative, egocentric, unhinged, narcissist who is the very definition of a trash human being. Jeff Lowe, a later-introduced business partner is portrayed as a criminal low-life conman and grifter. Carole Baskin, a woman who runs a Big Cat rescue in Florida, is portrayed as a busybody who more than likely murdered her former husband.

Is there some hyperbole at place by the makers of this documentary when it comes to these people? More than likely, but even their own actions and words caught on camera is more than enough to convince me that they’re garbage.

So, for seven episodes, this true crime drama leads us down a rabbit hole dug by a bunny on meth. There is backstabbing, double-dealing, horrible character traits, threats, egos on steroids, legal battles, and finally a murder for hire plot… apparently, zookeeping is a cutthroat business!

Again: hyperbole? More than likely.

People from all over come for the trash and the shocking catastrophe of humanity that sniffles and struts across the screen, but in the end, I see this series with more of a sense of sadness which is perfectly summed up by the final few moments of the final episode…

There are only three people in this documentary that I liked. First, you’ve got Erik Cowie, the Head Keeper at Joe Exotic’s zoo. You really feel for this guy. He doesn’t seem to care about the drama or anything that’s going on, the guy just wants to take care of the animals and you can see the stress of not being able to do his job properly etched on his weary face.

You’ve got John Reinke who, like Cowie, seems to want to take care of the animals and make sure they are okay, but the personal dramas and egos around him never gives him the chance to do so. You really feel for the guy when he laments that he’ll never see his animals again.

Then, finally, you’ve got Saff, a worker at the zoo who literally gives his right arm to the place and is probably the realist person that they interview. He loves what she does despite being mauled by one of the animals and is frank with everything he says. “Nobody wins. Everyone involved in this is a so-called animal advocate. Not a single animal benefited from this war.”

If there are heroes in The Tiger King, it’s these three.

Everyone else? Garbage.

But, that’s the tragedy of the series… through it all: The plotting, the personality clashes, the egos and the crimes… few people seem to give a damn about the animals in the zoos. When they say that no one wins, that’s debatable… but the true losers are the animals in the zoo. The loser is the Joe Exotic that you see at the end of the series from an archived news story from when he first opened his zoo, a wide-eyed and idealistic man who wants to end tiger breeding programs and animal abuse… the things that he eventually becomes wrapped up in when the scent of money becomes too strong.

Tiger King is, ultimately, a story of corruption and rot… of how greed and fame decays even the noblest of intentions and how the things that you care about become null and void before you even become aware of it.

The craziness of the series fades after the first couple of episodes with occasional dashes of lunacy to keep you coming back for more, but, as I said, I just can’t shake the sadness that this documentary left with me.

The only ones who seem to care just seem so tired. I just hope that they continue to care and that the passion that they obviously have isn’t crushed out of them like it was out of Joe Exotic.

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