‘Tiger King’ Review: An Overdramatized Look at Animal Conservation

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“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” lives up to the name but not the hype. This Netflix original broke viewing records, but the overdramatization of a bitter rivalry undercut both a criminal investigation and the stars’ core desire to protect big cats.

Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage is the charismatic but inflammatory former owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Garvin County, OK.  The caretaker for over 230 lions and tigers met his match in founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, Carole Baskin, who made it her mission to have Joe’s roadside zoo shut down.

This true crime mini-series focuses on how these two got their start in the big cat industry and how their opposing ideologies exploded into a bitter rivalry, complete with vicious slander and much-too-deadly pranks. This ultimately led to Exotic’s sentencing to 22 years in federal prison for an unsuccessful murder-for-hire scheme against Baskin and dozens of wildlife violations, including the killing of five tigers.

Told through news stories and interviews with the family, friends and coworkers of Exotic and Baskin, the show offers audiences a peek into both sides of the story. However, the representation of both sides probably matches that of any other “reality” show, often playing up the drama to increase viewership. According to Nielsen, “Tiger King” averaged 34.3 million views during its first 10 days of release, surpassing the viewership of “Stranger Things” season two.

Reality shows aren’t really my cup of tea, so normally this series would have been pretty low on my watchlist. There were bits and pieces of conflicting information about it floating around on social media, so I also didn’t know what to expect when I started watching. However, I tried to keep an open mind and gave it a shot.

The first episode was promising, but not enough to keep me invested thereafter. However, it was interesting to see the politics and the behind-the-scenes debates about whether animals should be kept in captivity.

The show portrayed Exotic as a man who loved his animals, making them perform for or interact with people for educational purposes. He firmly believed that private ownership of these cats was his right, and he made threats against those who dared to take them away. Baskin argued against his claim on the grounds that there weren’t enough laws preventing or regulating private ownership. She believed, or at least wanted her supporters to believe, that Exotic was abusing his animals.

Of course, others are unsure of where they sit on this debate. While many think lions and tigers should be able to roam free, several interviewees on both sides pointed to the reality that the native habitats for these animals are no longer safe. That is, if their lands haven’t already been destroyed. This debate is what I like about the show because it gets people thinking about wildlife protection laws and conservation.

With that being said, I think this point gets drowned out by all the crazy stunts these stars are pulling. The coarse language, the blingy costumes, all the gun-toting and explosions and snakes in mailboxes— it’s ridiculous! Even if these things happened, I still think they’ve been exaggerated for the ratings or manipulated to show some kind of bias. Despite the conviction, Exotic is portrayed more as a martyr than a criminal.

If you want to learn the truth about the Tiger King, I suggest reading a news article. If you like the drama and deceit, feel free to add this show to your watchlist. But personally, I would have preferred to spend my Earth Day watching a documentary on Jane Goodall.

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