Covid-19 Diary: In the Claws of the Tiger King

Sometimes, I do things I don’t want to do simply because I hate to be left out of the conversation. Reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” when it came out in 2011, for example. Listening to the President’s daily coronavirus press conferences back when he was doing daily coronavirus press conferences. Now I’ve sunk to a new low.

Last week, I watched every episode of “Tiger King” on Netflix.

It was something I’d sworn I’d never do. I’d heard the show was a downer. Depressing and disturbing. Several friends described it as a train wreck. Yet the common consensus seemed to be that once you start the series, you’re hooked. It’s impossible to look away.

For those not familiar with “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” here’s the lowdown. It’s a true-crime documentary series, with seven 45-minute episodes and an epilogue. The first episode aired in mid-March, about the time most Americans were coming to realize that Covid-19 is a really big deal. The show became an instant sensation, perhaps because people had so much time to watch TV.

The star of the series is a 57-year-old man whose legal name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage. To make things simpler, he calls himself Joe Exotic. Joe describes himself as a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet.” He once owned and operated the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, more commonly known as the GW Zoo, in Oklahoma. He’s now serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison after being convicted on two counts of murder-for-hire and 17 counts of animal abuse.

The product of an unhappy childhood, Joe turned to animals for solace. His passion became an addiction, with large cats being the animals he was most obsessed with. Joe quickly figured out that tiger cubs have enormous appeal. Fans of all ages will pay big money to cuddle the cubs and have photos taken with them. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Cubs are removed from their mothers at too young an age, which is detrimental to their physical and emotional health. Once a tiger cub reaches the age of twelve weeks, it’s too dangerous to handle. Meaning that more and more cubs must be bred. At one time, Joe Exotic kept almost 200 tigers, as well as many other exotic animals, at his zoo. Many were not well cared for.

But there’s more to the series than animals. Lots more. There are Joe’s many husbands, three of whom are featured on the show. There’s his outrageous temper, his music (he plays guitar and lip-syncs songs that he claimed to have written but didn’t) and the homemade pizza served at the zoo snack bar, which was likely topped with the same out-of-date meat from the Walmart dumpster that he fed his cats. There’s his 2016 campaign for President of the United States. (That failing, he then ran unsuccessfully for governor of Oklahoma.) “Tiger King” is filled with more profanity than you can imagine, a constant stream so mind-numbing that after a while you almost quit noticing it.

The biggest plot point in the series is Joe’s feud with animal rights advocate Carole Baskin, who’s something of a shady character herself. She claims that Joe is an opportunist and an abuser. She wants his operation shut down. He claims she killed her second husband and fed him to her own tigers. Joe’s attempts to have Carole murdered is the reason he’s behind bars.

So there you have it. If “Tiger King” sounds like a good way to spend several hours of your life so that you won’t be left out of a conversation, go for it. But I have a better suggestion. You can watch reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” on Netflix, too.

I can guarantee they won’t give you bad dreams.
(June 7, 2020)