Murder, madness and tigers: behind the year's wildest Netflix series

The directors of Tiger King thought they were making a film on big cat ownership in the US. Then their subject was charged with plotting a murder

Tiger King, a new Netflix docuseries resulting from a five-year odyssey that fully earns the term wild, started, perhaps surprisingly, in the reptile world. In 2014, Eric Goode, a film-maker and longtime conservationist, was looking into a notorious snake dealer in south Florida when a stranger mentioned, off-hand, “check out what I just bought”. There’s a collective “oh shit” when he slides open his van to reveal a snow leopard resting in a cage, in 100F heat. “It just blew my mind: what is a snow leopard doing in the back of this guy’s van?” Goode says early in episode one. “That set me on this journey to really understand what is going on with people keeping big cats in this country.”

If only it stayed that simple. Over the next five years (and seven 45-minute episodes), Goode and co-director Rebecca Chaiklin followed the thread of private big cat ownership in the US – a disturbing if fascinating topic in and of itself – down a rabbit hole including, in no particular order: a murder-for-hire plot of a rival big cat owner, a theory that said owner fed her millionaire husband to tigers (there’s no evidence to support this, though the husband’s children from a previous marriage have aired the claim in local media), a guru-led harem based around an exotic animal park in Myrtle Beach, an accidental gun death and a federal sentence for animal abuse. That’s aside from the astounding fact that there are more privately owned tigers in the US (somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000) than in the wild (fewer than 4,000), kept as pets or in side-of-the-highway wildlife menageries.

But all that comes later, as Goode and Chaiklin follow the descent of one of the most notorious tiger owners in the US: Joe Maldonado-Passage, professionally known as Joe Exotic, who ran a 16-acre private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, with dozens of tigers, plus lions, bears and alligators. The film-makers first learned of Joe, an attention-loving eccentric with a bleached mullet, piercings and a penchant for leopard-print outfits, through Carole Baskin, operator of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, and Joe’s philosophical opposite. She had “a hitlist of ‘bad guys’”, recalled Chaiklin via email. “And Joe was her No 1 bad guy” as a prominent breeder of tigers for “cub petting”, a cottage industry in which people pay for photos with baby tigers, which grow to be unmanageable after about 12 weeks and are then frequently discarded, mistreated or euthanized. “Carole was completely obsessed with Joe, which naturally made us quite curious about him,” said Chaiklin. They reached out, and soon were filming in Wynnewood, about an hour north of the Texas border.

Joe loved the publicity (“Joe loved being on camera more than just about anything,” said Chaiklin), his husbands (of which there have been several, sometimes overlapping, throughout the series’s five-year timeline), and his YouTube and TV channels. But he hated Baskin, who he accused of feeding her husband to tigers in the late 1990s and who had successfully petitioned malls across the country from hosting his cub petting shows. “The feud between Carole and Joe and their obsession with each other was quite comedic at first – it had a very best in show feeling to it,” said Chaiklin. But there was no end to the escalation – as documented in the show’s early episodes, Joe frequently and crudely mocked Baskin in his broadcasts, threatening to set venomous snakes on her and even shooting a dummy of her in the head.

And then, in September 2018, in the middle of the Tiger King project, he was arrested on charges of hiring two hitmen to kill Baskin. “This story is a film-maker’s dream in how it evolved narratively,” said Chaiklin. “However, when you spend a lot of time filming with people, you get to know them quite well. So on a human level it was quite difficult to process some of the unexpected twists it took.” Some of Joe’s commentary in the series is taped from jail phone calls; in January 2020, he was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for the Baskin plot and various wildlife violations.

Still, Joe Exotic’s fall from self-proclaimed Tiger King to prison is but one of several absurd threads in the series, in part because the world of big cat ownership in the US is isolated, unregulated and propagated by cults of personality. “All of these characters check out of mainstream life,” said Goode via email. “They have created their own individual universes – little ‘utopias’ – along with their own set of rules, which ultimately was Joe’s greatest downfall.” For example, Goode and Chaiklin interview Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a polygamous, guru-styled owner of Myrtle Beach Safari who has been accused by a former longtime employee of running a cult, and by Joe Exotic of euthanizing tiger cubs once they outgrow petting (he has denied these accusations; his compound was raided by federal agents in December 2019); Jeff Lowe, a former Joe Exotic business partner and con artist who took over and dismantled the Wynnewood zoo; and Tim Stark, a former Lowe partner and private zoo owner in southern Indiana who is also under investigation for animal cruelty. And that’s not even getting into the staff and associates of each.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Photograph: Netfilx

It’s easy to see how Goode and Chaiklin obtained too much material over five years on this story – there’s a miniseries on Antle’s compound alone – but the most gutting and dramatic thread remains the shadow trade of wild animals in the US. “I’ve been in this exotic animal world for a long time, and I wanted to expose the exploitation and the suffering of these cats,” said Goode. In typical American fashion, regulation of the ownership of big cats such as tigers and lions is scant and confusing, varying state by state or even county by county. States such as Oklahoma have almost no regulations. “In some places there are more regulations on keeping a pet dog than a pet tiger,” said Chaiklin.

“It’s not dissimilar to guns – you can buy an AR-15 in Oklahoma and you can buy a tiger in Oklahoma easily,” said Goode of an unwillingness of state and federal governments to wade into private wildlife regulations. A federal bill to impose much stricter rules on private ownership of big cats, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, has not passed Congress.

It’s clear, even after just an hour of Tiger King, that there’s an intoxicating allure to big cats – a force that draws visitors to lucrative private zoos, turns keepers into fanatics and beckons viewers deeper and deeper into what can seem like an alternate reality. In Tiger King, reality is stranger than fiction and the characters larger than life, their morality, and culpability in Joe Exotic’s fall, is up to viewer discretion. “I hope we have told this story in such a way that the audience will arrive to their own conclusions,” said Goode, while “ultimately … recognizing that the real victims in this story are the cats”.

  • Tiger King is now available on Netflix


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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