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The drama and appeal of ‘Tiger King’ is a century in the making

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin have hooked quarantined Americans because of what the series says about themselves.

HANDOUT IMAGE: Joe Exotic, Tiger King on Netflix, 2020 (Netflix)

As millions of Americans remain confined at home thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, social media has been ablaze about what seems to be the distraction of the moment: Netflix’s sensational new docuseries, “Tiger King,” a sordid human drama that unfolds just beyond the cages of the thousands of big cats confined in private zoos and sanctuaries across the United States.

The central drama in “Tiger King” revolves mainly around two exotic animal institutions: the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma (the GW Zoo), and the Big Cat Rescue park in Tampa.

It features a battle between Joe Exotic, the colorful GW Zoo proprietor, and Carole Baskin, owner of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary. Both display tigers in confinement and capitalize on public fascination with big cats, as visitors willingly fork over hundreds of dollars for tours and selfies with tiger cubs (apparently a trend on social media).

While Exotic relishes the shameless commercialism, Baskin has developed Big Cat Rescue in opposition to places like the GW Zoo, appealing more explicitly to the environmentalist and animal welfare crowd. The Big Cat Rescue nonprofit maintains a mission to “end the abuse of big cats in captivity and prevent extinction of big cats in the wild.”

Baskin has teamed with PETA and sought the shutdown of the GW Zoo for years, and Joe Exotic has responded by accusing Baskin of literally feeding her former (and still missing) husband to the lions.

While the murder mystery is distinctive, the fascination with exotic animals and the debate over their treatment is not. The way Americans treat animals — particularly as forms of entertainment and exhibition — has been a contentious question in the United States going back hundreds of years. Then, as now, debates about animals often descend into squabbles among our own species.

Zoos in America go back at least to Montezuma, but in colonial times animal exhibitions were somewhat rare but noteworthy. Newspapers announced the arrival of the first caged lion in North America in 1720, the first camel in 1721, a polar bear in 1733 and a leopard in 1768.

But it was in the 19th century that exotic animal exhibitions burst into popular entertainment — popularized most of all by P.T. Barnum and a flurry of other private zookeepers and showmen, including Robert Woodward in San Francisco and Grizzly Adams’s traveling show. Nineteenth-century cities became sites of countless small-scale zoos and wild animal exhibits and shows. The conditions these animals faced were abysmal by today’s standards: animals chained to posts, or confined in small cages. Mark Twain noted the “dingy horrors” of one of these “pleasure grounds” in San Francisco.

As today, conflicts emerged over the character of animal exhibits in American life. Indeed, there is something of a tortuous lineage from P.T. Barnum to Joe Exotic — including their failed political careers later in life (Barnum ran for Congress in 1867, and Joe Exotic ran for president in 2016 and for governor of Oklahoma in 2018). Like Joe Exotic, Barnum used animal exhibits largely to draw crowds and amuse customers: a consumer-centered form of animal entertainment that was thrilling and extravagant, but which some saw as socially degrading to people and cruel to animals.

Barnum also faced dogged opposition of those who sought to reform animal exhibitions as part of a larger political and social project. In the last decades of the 19th century, Henry Bergh’s ASPCA in New York emerged at the forefront of a nascent and powerful animal welfare movement in the United States. Armed with police and prosecutorial powers, Bergh demanded Barnum cease keeping live rabbits and birds confined alongside his boa constrictor at the American Museum — mostly to protect visitors from the terrifying spectacle. In later years, Bergh’s society would prod Barnum to stop using elephant goads and to end the Firehorse Act, in which horses leaped through flaming hoops.

Other SPCAs targeted exhibitions they saw as cruel to animals and degrading to human onlookers.

Yet, even as these efforts were ongoing, the late 19th and early 20th century was arguably the greatest period of zoo-building both in the United States and worldwide, and that growth required wide networks of capture and trade of wild animals. But many adult wild animals did not fare well in confinement. William Hornaday, the first director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) noted adult wild animals placed in zoos, in “most cases,” “either kill themselves by struggling or die of melancholy.”

To build a zoo, one needed to capture young animals and raise them in confinement. But to catch the young “it is usually necessary to kill the mother,” wrote Carl Hagenbeck, a renowned animal trader who stocked prestigious zoos worldwide. To obtain one musk ox for the Copenhagen Zoo, 28 adults needed to be killed; for four young rhinos for the N.Y. Zoo, Hagenbeck’s company slaughtered 40 adults. Hornaday begged Hagenbeck not to tell the press or the public about these methods, fearing backlash from “many cranks” who were “so terribly sentimental.”

Then, as now, the majority of zoo animals developed stereotypic behaviors (sometimes called “zoochosis”), which can take the form of pacing and self-mutilation. Stereotypes are more exaggerated in species with a wider geographic range in the wild. Left to their own devices, tigers range tens or hundreds of miles, but in confinement they are limited to cages and often pace. Such wild animal behaviors were also on display in 19th-century zoos, though human observers often saw them as animal playfulness.

Yet despite these conditions, humans continue to have an insatiable desire to use animals to cultivate parts of their selves. Central to the motivation for keeping wild domesticates is a certain human excitement and thrill, which people in “Tiger King” depict as something akin to an addiction. Visitors become “wildly stimulated,” Doc Antle (the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina) tells viewers. To feel control over and intimacy with a large and powerful animal has been intoxicating human beings for millennia. It is perhaps what the first domesticators of large animals might have felt.

Indeed, as Americans sit and watch from their quarantined homes, it is control, fear and confinement that are central to our new existence.

As “Tiger King” and the longer history of zookeeping suggests, wild animals have become ensnared in our own human dramas and vulnerabilities. Humans continue to use animals to desperately access parts of themselves. This was as true in the 1800s, when Barnum and Bergh argued over the proper exhibition of animals in New York. And it remains true today in various and new ways — including the tiger cub selfie.

Throughout the series, the big cats are largely a backdrop — the animals themselves used yet again as a sort of packaging for a human drama. It’s only in the last episode of “Tiger King” that the lives of those animals come back into partial focus, though briefly.

“I saw a tiger, and the tiger saw a man,” Joe Exotic sings in a music video that appears throughout the series. By the end of the film we have seen man, often in ways that are both strange and familiar. But have we really seen a tiger?