There’s a place and a purpose for investigative TV series and documentary films. The Central Park Five and When They See Us did a lot to address problems in the criminal defense system; Making a Murderer drew attention to the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey; and The Jinx led to the arrest of Robert Durst on first-degree murder charges. That’s all well and good for humans, but when it comes to animal welfare, the plot thickens.
The 2009 documentary The Cove won an Oscar for its analysis and investigation of dolphin-hunting in Japan, though it’s also been criticized for its Western point of view on a traditionally Eastern cultural and economic practice; a counter-documentary Behind The Cove, which presented the side of the Taiji fishermen, arrived a few years later. The 2013 feature Blackfish looked into SeaWorld and its financially lucrative captivity of killer whales, notably Tilikum, who was responsible for the death of three individuals; that doc led to fluctuating attendance at SeaWorld parks, legislation passed to protect orcas, and loss of revenue from top-tier entertainers and corporate sponsorships alike, eventually culminating in SeaWorld stopping its live orca shows and breeding program. All of these projects intended to inform, educate, and engage audiences first; entertainment was a secondary concern. That’s what makes them worthy documentaries. Netflix’s latest sensation Tiger King is anything but.
Currently trending atop the charts of the streaming giant, this seven-episode series from Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode was once presumably supposed to investigate allegations of animal abuse taking place in America’s many, many roadside attractions. Instead, what Tiger King found more appealing in its investigation was the “Murder, Mayhem and Madness” inherent in colorful characters like Joe Exotic. The “mulleted, gun-toting polygamist and [lip-synched and ghost-written] country western singer who presides over an Oklahoma roadside zoo” was the hook they needed when it became clear (or at least presumed) that simply pleading for animal welfare wouldn’t be enough to attract an audience. The result is a series that pulls from the pages of supermarket tabloids and all the wrong lessons from trashy daytime talk shows. And people just can’t get enough of it.
Now there’s something to be said for sensationalism: It draws the audience in, keeps them engaged, and entertains them along the way; that’s the hook. And with Tiger King‘s increasingly stranger-than-fiction story, there’s plenty of sensationalism to pull from. The missed opportunity here–the sin, really–is that Tiger King did absolutely nothing to redirect the series’ attention and meme-seeking audiences into something positive, something life-changing for thousands of exotic animals out there. The most the “documentary” does in service of animal welfare is a tropey few lines of factoids just before the credits roll; no links to reputable animal care sites or organizations, no information as to where to go to find out more, nothing.
In a recent interview with THR, the filmmakers addressed just that:
Rebecca Chailin: I don’t think we said [Blackfish]. I think [Carole] said it — and to be quite honest, our [initial] intention was to tell a story with these colorful characters that focused on the issues that we both cared a lot about. There is a big-cat crisis in this country and we wanted to highlight that there are a lot of incredibly cruel practices that are taking place. In the course of making this endeavor, in a million years [who would have] thought the feud between Joe and Carole would escalate to the place that it did and take all these crazy twists and turns. We had no idea when we first started filming with Carole that she had the history that she had. So yeah, as we filmed a lot of things unfolded — but we hoped that people walked away from this with a understanding that their big cats don’t belong in captivity and they belong in the wild and if we want to protect them that’s where we should be focusing our resources to protect them in the wild.
Eric Goode: We knew that we didn’t want to make a film that was strictly advocacy and that was depressing. The bludgeoning or the torture of these animals — people have a low tolerance for that. And in other films that have been successful — even The Cove that won an Oscar — it’s hard to watch the killing of dolphins. So we wanted to figure out how to make this film interesting and really look at the psychology of the people that were involved, sort of like Best in Show or Grizzly Man, and really dive into that, but at the same time dive into the issues of the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. I think the most important thing is that we wanted people to see this series. Fortunately, I think that’s the silver lining. We have this captive audience in this bizarre time right now and I hope that people come away really understanding that this process of keeping big cats in captivity is exploitative and is something we didn’t advocate.
In other words, animal welfare advocacy took a backseat to crazy Joe Exotic and his schemes. Perhaps that’s in part because Tiger King doesn’t really care about the animals that are treated no better than props by the people highlighted in the series or the people behind the scenes of the documentary themselves. Perhaps it’s in part because Netflix’s lack of an animal abuse or animal cruelty policy allows titles like Tiger King and Don’t F*ck with Cats to not only stream, but to thrive. They are more than happy to show outright acts of harm and cruelty as long as the little warning watermark airs before the episode in question. Whatever the personal failings and depravity behind the scenes that allows this, I don’t know, but as long as the viewers keep viewing and pushing “Next”, I don’t expect that culture to change either.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Howard Baskin, husband to the much-maligned and oft-threatened Carole Baskin, who found herself not only embroiled in Joe Exotic’s mad schemes but on the short end of the stick when it came to the bait-and-switch tactics of the Tiger King series creators:
Now, I’m not 100% in on the Baskins either. They are running a business, after all, even if it is a non-profit. (Though it’s very worth mentioning that Big Cat Rescue has shifted from a more entertainment-focused past to a more conservation and rehabilitation focus in recent years, earning consecutive four-star reviews on Charity Navigator and maintaining accreditation through the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.) But it’s a bit strange that Tiger King spent so much time on the feud between the Baskins and Exotic and his ilk, not to mention the case of Carole’s missing (and declared dead) former husband Don Lewis, and so little time showing the work that the married couple does at Big Cat Rescue.
I guess it’s not that strange, really, owing to my earlier point that Tiger King doesn’t care about animal welfare. Clearly, neither do the celebrities who have taken to social media to speak out in support of Joe Exotic and against the Baskins, including Cardi B, Wiz Khalifa, and Kim Kardashian-West. (I, for one, tend to be on the side of folks like Lucy Lawless and, bizarrely, James Woods. What has this world come to?)
In the end (spoilers), it’s fitting that Joe Exotic, a man who supposedly believes in karma and has made a living by breeding, selling, and keeping wild animals in cages for entertainment purposes, is now in a cage himself, even as the cameras roll and paying customers look in on him from the outside as a curiosity. There are many more bad actors featured in Tiger King who should be locked up along with him, but the real victims in this sad, sorry tale are all the animals who have been kept in these unnatural conditions with no recourse. Sadder still is the fact that Tiger King has no interest in helping them at all if it means sacrificing sensationalism and being a little less meme-worthy. Shameful, really, on all counts, from the algorithm to the audience itself.
If you actually want to contribute to animal welfare in a meaningful way, be sure to visit the following sites to learn about their work and donate to a good cause:
WWF – World Wildlife Fund – For my money, the best charity that actually has animal welfare on their minds, in their hearts, and as their mission. They have a great breakdown on why captive tigers are a worldwide problem and how you can go about helping to combat it.
Best Friends Animal Shelters – If you want to keep your animal welfare on the local / domestic pet-focused scale.
The Humane Society – This organization fights for animal welfare on all stages, big and small.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – Protecting Africa’s wildlife and preserving their habitats since 1977.