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How ‘Tiger King’ became a tale more about people than big cats

Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, the central character of Netflix's hit series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” (AFP Photo/Netflix)

The roaring hit of the coronavirus quarantine, Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is as polarizing as cat-print clothing. The docuseries features a mix of larger-than-life-characters, larger-than-natural hybrid big cats, bizarre music videos and a few alleged murder plots.

At the center is self-described tiger king Joseph Maldonado-Passage, his kingdom an Oklahoma zoo that houses upward of 200 tigers. Better known as Joe Exotic, he is now serving a 22-year sentence for trying to hire hit men to take out his rival — sanctuary owner and animal rights activist Carole Baskin — and for wildlife violations including the killing of five tigers.

The series addresses but doesn’t dwell on the troubling aspects of Maldonado-Passage’s menagerie, including the constant breeding of baby big cats, and animal protection advocates have criticized it for glossing over them. The story is driven instead by Joe Exotic’s battle with Baskin.

From a narrative perspective, that’s unsurprising. Maldonado-Passage is a compelling protagonist, and anyone who sets out to learn about tigers in the United States quickly hears about him. That includes me: I spent months reporting on the tiger trade and Maldonado-Passage’s role in it for an article published in 2019. At his trial, I met “Tiger King’s” directors, documentary filmmaker Rebecca Chaiklin, and Eric Goode, a Manhattan hotelier and restaurateur and founder of a turtle conservation organization.

The trouble with tigers in America

I spoke recently with Goode and Chaiklin about the series and what they wanted it to convey. They said they had interviewed a vast array of people, including conservation biologists and animal rights activists, but decided that a show-don’t-tell approach would keep viewers interested while also revealing animal mistreatment.

Goode said he believes the series has done that: He said he had just gotten off the phone with a member of Congress who told him the show was helping get the votes needed to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill that would ban most private big cat ownership and public contact with big cats.

“We wanted to tell the story, but at the end have the takeaway be that there was horrible suffering and exploitation of these cats,” Goode said. “I think you’re going to see as time goes by that it is going to be very positive that so many people saw the series, and it will hopefully make real change."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eric, we learn in the first episode that you weren’t working on a film about big cats until you met someone who had a snow leopard in his van. What seized you about this topic?

Goode: I was filming before that in an ad hoc way when I traveled around the world doing conservation work. Then I began filming a world that I knew quite a bit about. I was peripherally involved in that world much of my life — the exotic reptile world, the collectors, the dealers, the smugglers. The reason I wanted to start filming more formally and a bit more professionally was that I wanted to expose the world. I was fascinated with it, both from the standpoint of what was going on with exotic animals and the pathology of the people involved.

We cast a wide net initially, and we were filming all the different subcultures — the monkey moms and the reptile people and bird people. But I was just really blown away that you could just buy a snow leopard. For me, it was like buying a panda bear or a Komodo dragon.

This series showcases some awful behavior. What do you think makes it so captivating?

Goode: If you would pitch this story to anyone in Hollywood as a scripted series, they would have thrown it back in your face and said this is just not believable. How could you possibly have these characters and all of these things happening in one story? But reality sometimes is stranger than fiction.

Chaiklin: This world is not a world that’s widely known, and it has been pretty secretive until the advent of social media. And these characters are just exceptionally colorful, and they are who they are, and they’re uninhibited in their eccentricities. The lead characters all are sort of the kingpins or the cult leaders or the tiger kings or queens of their world. And I think that’s interesting to people.

You filmed for five years. At what point did you know it would be a series about Joe Exotic?

Goode: We went to Carole, and she explained to us who the bad guys were in respect to cat exploitation in America. And then we went a bit later to see Joe in Oklahoma. And of course, like everybody, were kind of amazed at just all the aspects of Joe — the ego, the narcissism, the openly gay, flamboyant, country-singing, mullet-wearing, gun-toting guy. He and Carole both were easy to access, and they’re open books, and they wanted the attention. Frankly, I felt that [Myrtle Beach Safari owner] Doc Antle was as interesting, and certainly more frightening. But it didn’t become a central story about Joe until the war was mostly between Carole and Joe.

Chaiklin: We wanted to tell the story of what was happening behind the curtain in these roadside zoos. And it became very evident pretty quickly that it was much more captivating and would reach a wider audience to tell it from the people who were involved with it as opposed to the activists, the sanctuary people, who would go on a diatribe about the horrors of it, which was actually quite uninteresting and really not very good on screen. So it was a decision to let them just speak for themselves and let audiences see firsthand what was going on inside these places.

In what sense was Doc Antle more frightening?

Goode: These people were very guarded, and rightfully so, because their entire livelihood is at stake from the government, from animal rights groups, animal welfare groups. Doc was one of those people. That courtship and my entry into his place was not easy. As I said earlier, I personally have been involved in this world, so I knew people that knew him that helped me make an introduction to Doc.

The series is much more about people than tigers. What impression about animal captivity, breeding and cub-petting did you want to leave with viewers?

Goode: You don’t want to just completely bum people out. But at the same time, at the end, making it hopefully clear that this was a horrible practice.

We may do a follow-up that would explain this, but it’s quite dense when you start explaining the genetics and the bottlenecks and the inbreeding and the congenital issues that happen between tigers, and the distinction between the six remaining subspecies of tigers left on earth. We tried, with sit-down interviews with conservation biologists that really understand all of that, and it’s just really hard to weave it into the story.

Chaiklin: I do think we wanted people to come away from this series understanding that patronizing roadside zoos is not something that helps any animals whatsoever. Wild animals do not belong in captivity. And that the cub-petting that people engage in at malls and fairs across America is actually a cruel practice. If we want these animals to be here, these other species for a future generation, it’s really important that we protect wild lands, their natural habitat. That’s where they belong.

Goode: The caveat is one of the remaining tiger subspecies is only in captivity in species survival programs in zoos and does not exist in the wild. The reality of our world today is not every species can be left in the wild.

Do you think Joe loved his animals? What do you think he —

Goode: Of course not. I mean, it was the most extreme animal hoarding. He would shoot animals randomly in front of me. He shot a chicken just because it crowed too much. There’s a lot of crocodile tears — Joe tells people what they want to hear. But he was monetizing these animals. He didn't care who he sold them to. He was exploiting them. And you cannot love 230 tigers. It’s absurd to think that he loved each and every one of his animals. He was making money off of them.

Chaiklin: I think he loved having the animals and the attention that it brought him and the notoriety it brought him. But certainly it was full-on exploitation of animals.

Joe told me that being in a jail cell had shown him that animal captivity is wrong. Do you buy his flip?

Goode: It’s absurd. It’s absurd. It’s absurd. It’s absurd. Now that he’s in jail, to say that he would never keep an animal in a cage again just because he’s in a cage, it’s absolutely absurd.

Chaiklin: I don’t agree with that completely. I’ve been in pretty close touch with Joe. I think it has raised his awareness. But I think he’s also a 60-year-old man, practically, who doesn’t really know another way of life. And so if he ever does get out of prison, I think it would be very tricky for him to figure out a new path. But I personally feel as though it’s sunk in pretty deeply with him, the horror of captivity.

Goode: I don’t know. He was trying to sell lions while he was in jail, cubs. I think Joe is Joe. I’ve been in this world my entire life and watched people just like Joe anthropomorphize, try to figure out ways to justify keeping animals. It’s a very common pattern.

Carole Baskin has accused you of sensationalism, including about allegations that she was involved in the 1997 disappearance of her first husband. She was never charged with a crime. Why devote so much time to this topic?

Chaiklin: It was not something that we were even thinking was even on the table when we began this. And it kept coming up over and over and over again, and such big questions. And so then we began to poke a little bit and say, well, as storytellers and as filmmakers, it would be wrong not to just follow up on some of these things. It’s such an important part of her history, unfortunately.

Goode: There are other real questions that arose about Carole and her past with cats and her evolution. I would oftentimes ask her why, if you want to be out of business in 10 years, build a gift shop that’s 10 times bigger? I think one of the more important questions was, “If your mission is to tell people not to keep tigers and lions and leopards and jaguars in cages and bobcats and so forth, why do it? Why not really ask yourself a hard question and say, is it more humane to keep a tiger in a cage pacing neurotically for the rest of its life, or is it more humane to humanely euthanize that animal and put it out of its misery?”

This series hopefully will really help pass the Big Cat [Public] Safety Act. It is creating awareness and consciousness about this issue and the suffering and exploitation of roadside zoos. And I wish she could see that because it’s doing precisely what her mission advocates for.

When I was reporting on this subject, it became clear to me that this universe isn’t black and white — there’s a lot of gray between a “good” sanctuary and a “bad” zoo.

Goode: It’s a lot of semantics. The word sanctuary and the word rescue, the words roadside zoo, the word reserve, the word zoo in general. At the end of the day, the best sanctuaries are places like the Performing Animal Welfare Society in Northern California, where he really provides his tigers large spaces. And there are people in the private sector that do a really good job with animals. It’s not just the Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos, because the AZA-accredited zoos also have better zoos and worse zoos, and some really do conservation work that’s significant, and some of them don’t.

Chaiklin: The one thing I will say about Carole and others, at least members of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, is that they’re not breeding. These other places that we were spending time were puppy mills of tigers. And that’s an incredibly important distinction, in that they’re creating more and more of these animals to languish in captivity. The sanctuaries aren’t doing that.

Did you find anything hopeful in this world? Any heroes?

Chaiklin: Our story was about a lot of people who are very poor. And I think there needs to be a certain sensitivity to that. Although there was not a tremendous amount of awareness and education around these issues, there were people there trying their best under very difficult circumstances to take care of the animals even under horrific, cruel circumstances.

In my few interactions with Joe, I got the impression he’d be delighted by the attention he’s getting. What do you hear from him?

Goode: He was elated last time I spoke to him, which was probably a week ago, and basking in his newfound fame, and probably feels that there’s some optimism in his mind that he may have a chance of an appeal. But he was transferred to Texas to a federal penitentiary, and he’s been quarantined.

Chaiklin: And so he hasn’t been able to speak. But I was hearing from him multiple times a day, and he was over the moon. He was getting press requests. And apparently — I never know if it’s true or not — getting so many donations through the commissary that it shut the commissary down. And it’s what Joe always wanted. He’s always wanted to be a star. And suddenly the irony of ironies is that he’s incarcerated. And that’s part of the reason that he became a star.

Goode: But we struggle with that. As much as I do have empathy for Joe on a certain level, he did horrible things. And so for him to come out as some kind of antihero in this story is unfortunate, because he was someone who abused both animals and people.

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