Who's the Villain in TIGER KING?
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
SPOILERS FOR TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND MADNESS BELOW
Netflix’s sensational docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness boasted 34 million U.S. viewers within ten days of its release. For two weeks straight, it held the number one spot in Netflix’s ranking system. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t already binged the eight episodes, here’s a brief overview: Tiger King is a true-crime documentary that explores the feud between animal park owner Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe “Exotic” and animal sanctuary founder Carole Baskin. For years, Baskin worked to shut down Joe’s Oklahoma zoo. It escalated from online vlog threats to hiring hitmen to take down Carole (supposedly). Joe Exotic now sits in prison to pay for his crimes. The docuseries focuses on the Baskin-Exotic feud while revealing the horrors of animal cruelty and exploitation. Tiger King introduces other formidable individuals in the big cat industry, all of whom play a part in the eventual downfall of Joe Exotic.
When faced with the dynamic personalities in Tiger King, it’s tricky business determining which one is the worst. Much of the current buzz around the show involves arguing over who is the real villain of the series. You have the mightier-than-thou “Mother Teresa of Cats” who may have murdered her ex-husband; the man who allegedly strangled his first wife and paraded around Las Vegas with tiger cubs in suitcases; the quasi-cult-leader who sexually exploited his female workers and may or may not have thrown aging cats into gas chambers; and, the fame-obsessed, bleached-mullet-sporting, trigger-happy Joe “Exotic,” whose murder-for-hire plot and seventeen charges of animal abuse landed him twenty-two years in prison. The docuseries does an excellent job of presenting the worst of these people, without framing it in a way that forces you to see one individual as more criminal than the other. It’s a slow burn. Both positive and negative qualities of each person are revealed little by little, which allows the viewer to form their own opinion.
Let’s start with Carole Baskin, the ‘activist’ of non-profit, Big Cat Rescue. We see the best of Baskin in clips of her at Congress, lobbying for the Big Cat Safety Act. She started her animal sanctuary to protect big cats from being bred in captivity. An animal sanctuary does not allow person-animal interaction. Even so, tourists come from all over the world to peer into her cages. In the series, clips from Big Cat Rescue show what look like very small, rusted enclosures. Exotic and the other animal park owners repeatedly commented that the conditions at Baskin’s sanctuary were no better than theirs. This proved untrue. A blog post from a wildlife biologist explains how Big Cat Rescue actually has larger enclosures than is required by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In a shot taken from the series, pictured below, the biologist shows that the lockout cage is just a small component of a much larger enclosure.
While Baskin’s sanctuary proves a better home than the animal parks, she still profits off of patrons who come to see animals in captivity. As Carole’s current activism works to stop the commodification of exotic animals, in theory, she should root for the eventual closure of Big Cat Rescue. In a recent interview, she confirms that her ultimate goal is to shut down her facilities. While this bodes well for the animals, Carole didn’t always put them first.
Big Cat Rescue used to go by another name. Before Baskin’s sanctuary, Carole opened Wildlife on Easy Street, where patrons could spend the night in cabins with unsupervised, de-clawed cubs. It wasn’t long before violations of the Wildlife Welfare Act were found. In a later interview, Baskin vaguely admitted to feeling bad about ignorant choices made before she saw the ‘bigger picture.’ The vigor in which she pursued Exotic’s park, as well as her other activism, seems to come from deep-seated guilt over her past choices.
Some argue that the show frames her as a hypocrite, discrediting any good she has done to protect animals. Tiger King focuses mostly on her conflict with Exotic, as well as the disappearance of her ex-husband. In her interviews, Baskin does not come off as genuine, so it’s tough to tell when she’s coaching herself and when she’s genuinely emoting.
Seemingly, Baskin has been working to protect animals for years now. So, why do so many consider her to be the worst of the bunch? The cold case of her still-missing ex-husband Don Lewis remains a hot topic among fans of the series. Theories that she fed him to her tigers seem like the perfect campfire horror story. Unfortunately, there is no incriminating proof. Even if she didn’t murder Lewis, she did alter his will. He did disappear right after filing a protection order against Carole for hiding his gun and making verbal threats to kill him...
Perhaps, Carole is putting her all into protecting the animals, and her activism isn’t a front. But, there is no denying that she used to breed big cats and sell them as pets, up until 2001. Did she put that fully behind her? Let’s hope so. Regardless, she doesn’t seem to hold herself accountable for what she did in the past. It took some digging to find out any previous misconduct, a task made simple only by the sheer density of people looking for answers after watching the series.
Baskin’s activism and lobbying, as well as her ‘efforts’ to change and learn from the past, are applaudable. But, separating herself from Joe Exotic seems a self-serving boost to her own image. She loves being ‘The Mother Teresa of Cats.’ Any story that mars that title no longer serves her. Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that she is in a current “feud” with the directors of Tiger King over her portrayal.
Joe “Exotic,” THE Tiger King
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, otherwise known as Joe Exotic, otherwise known as the one who actually ended up with jail time, exhibits multiple problematic qualities. For one, he’s a fraud who is obsessed with the limelight. Although far from the worst fact about him, let’s briefly discuss how Joe isn’t the one actually singing most of those moody country songs -- you know, the ones where he sounds like a generic pop-country singer in a generic country music video, surrounded by a bunch of big cats?
When his music career didn’t take off, Joe took a shot in the dark in search of another avenue for fame, i.e., running for president in 2016. When that didn’t pan out, he tried for governor of Oklahoma in 2018. Joe was no stranger to the camera. He kept up with fans through his web series, Joe Exotic TV, where he spent a majority of the time defacing Carole Baskin look-alike mannequins. Joe’s desperation for fame also led him to capture nearly every moment of his life on film, since 1999, in the hopes of achieving reality T.V. stardom. However, the dream turned to dust and ashes in March of 2015.
A mysterious fire burned down Exotic’s T.V. studio while he was reportedly out of town.The studio was housed in the zoo’s reptile enclosure, leading to the demise of several gators. While filming his message to the arsonist who burned down his T.V. studio, Joe ‘presses pause’ on his anger to get a better take. His ability to turn ‘crocodile tears’ on and off in front of the camera shows a dark insincerity; viewers may wonder if Joe is ever not putting on a show in his interviews. The verdict is out on who started the fire. Many theorize that Joe did it so that he could blame Carole Baskin.
Joe’s famous rivalry with Carole Baskin began when she set out to shut down his Oklahoma roadside zoo, G.W. Exotic Animal Park. His obsession with Carole and the increasing vulgarity he displayed in his web series made his current convictions all the less surprising. Nevertheless, Joe maintains his innocence.
In interviews, the employees of G.W. all confirmed that Joe would frequently talk about killing Carole. It became more of a reality when Joe put his money where his mouth was, paying hitman Allen Glover $3000 to go to Florida and assassinate Carole. Exotic had been trying to get Baskin killed since July 2016, and unknowingly discussed his plans with an undercover F.B.I. Agent. So, how can anyone sympathize with the self-described Tiger King?
Exotic’s obsession with the limelight allows viewers to see his humanity, more than any other individual in the series. When someone has that much screen time, and you can tell how hard they’re working to keep up their facade, their vulnerability inevitably leaks through. It’s easier to sympathize with Joe than a character like Carole Baskin. Her shady responses to her husband’s disappearance, as well as her hypocritical nature, make her less likable. But that should not distract from his unlawful mistreatment of the animals. He’s currently sitting on eight violations of the Lacey Act and nine violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Joe claimed to take good care of the animals at his park, but plenty of moments in the series point to the contrary. For one, they did not seem well-fed. Footage showed trucks of discarded meat from Walmart in the park, as employees scavenged for what to feed the big cats with and what was edible enough to cook for themselves. Joe’s zoo contained an upward of 200 tigers. Proper care is far from cheap. It takes $60-70K a month just to feed the animals. Joe bred and sold the cats, as well as profited off of cub-petting in malls and fairs all across America. Directors of Tiger King, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, spoke out against Joe’s animal cruelty. They claimed that Joe put on a good show for the camera, but he did not actually care about the animals: “He would shoot animals randomly in front of me. He shot a chicken just because it crowed too much.” His disregard for the lives of the animals remained on the murkier side until they found the tiger skulls that helped solidify his prison sentence.
One of Exotic’s employees, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, often stuck up for Joe. Saff admitted in the final episode, the aftermath interview session with Joel McHale, that Joe would give the clothes off of his back to those in need. He said that the Thanksgiving footage of Joe serving those who could not afford their own meals was just a small portion of his altruism. Joe had captured his life on film since 1999, though, so it’s impossible to know whether his philanthropy was genuine or just another publicity stunt. Who is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, when the curtains are closed, and the cameras are turned off?
Jeff Lowe and his wife Lauren currently own Joe’s animal park, while the Tiger King sits in jail. The pair possess questionable morals. They snuck tiger cubs in suitcases into Las Vegas hotels/casinos/clubs, using them to seduce women and throw wild parties -- sounds like they took a few too many notes from 2009 comedy The Hangover. In the final episode, employees at what is now called the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park claim to be happier with Lowe and Lauren as bosses. Although, any manner of running the park must be preferable to Joe’s gun-toting volatility. The Tiger King set the bar low.
Lowe did not seem to enter the animal business with good intentions; but, he is currently making moves in reparation. Some of Exotic’s tigers were moved to a sanctuary in Colorado, where they seem to be doing much better. Just as he’s rebranded Joe’s park, Lowe uses the publicity from the show to reframe himself as the good guy. It’s not entirely convincing, but if he treats the animals better in the process, then that is what is ultimately most important.
Lowe was the impetus for Joe’s downfall, as the recordings and evidence he gathered led to convicting the Tiger King. Joe believed that Lowe set him up, but the truth remains unclear. During the trials, Lowe didn’t testify because he would’ve perjured himself. Opting to stay out of it, Lowe avoided owning up to his dubious behavior. Similar to Baskin’s activism, Lowe’s heroic betrayal comes off as purely self-serving, seeing as he is currently profiting off of all of Joe’s enterprises. In one episode, Lowe said, “it was after Travis’ death that Joe completely lost it.” Travis was Joe Exotic’s second husband who passed away from accidental suicide. It sounds like Lowe was gaslighting Exotic’s mental state -- not to say that the Tiger King was of sound mind -- to further his plot of taking over the park.
Allen Glover was a friend of Lowe’s. This fact further supports Lowe’s intent to take down Joe. Glover maintains that he never intended to kill Carole and that he only agreed to get the money. Again, this is the story Glover is telling now. In the last episode of Tiger King, we hear an audio clip of Allen Glover admitting that he accepted the money from Joe to kill Carole. Even though he did not go to Florida and carry out the plan, one might wonder why Glover isn’t doing time for accepting the money in the first place. His testimony did help secure Joe’s verdict. As is the pattern with those involved in Tiger King, the stories they tell today do not quite match up with what’s been said and done in the past.
Bhagavan “Doc” Antle still runs his zoo, T.I.G.E.R.S., in South Carolina. He may not be a clear villain in terms of the animals... but in terms of humans? He’s a strong contender. All of the park owners possess a cult mentality, but whenever Doc’s face took up the screen, the effect was bone-chilling. Viewers of Tiger King are most disturbed by the treatment of the female workers at his park.
When questioned, Doc said, “I have a few girlfriends now and they certainly know about each other, but I am by no means married to anybody or have a harem like they are suggesting.” But, conversations with former tiger caretaker Barbara Fisher paint a different picture.
In the series, Fisher recounts how she immediately regretted working for Doc. She slept in a modified horse stall, which was rampant with roaches. Antle dressed his employees in provocative animal-print outfits they wore as uniforms. In an interview with ELLE post-air, Fisher admitted that she was happy with the portrayal of both her and Doc, who she said did not put on a facade in the interviews. Her final words were, “I hope the takeaway from Tiger King is that this is an unregulated world where people can get away with anything they want to. Now maybe we can do something about the treatment of the animals.”
In an Instagram post from March 31st, Doc addressed the insinuations about animal mistreatment: “Our cubs are not bred solely for the purpose of being a part of our interactive programs. They are bred as part of our captive tiger breeding program, which is designed to create a genetic backup for wild tiger populations.” Out of the many questions asked by the makers of Tiger King, Antle said only a tiny percentage of his answers were used in the series. This led him to call the show a “quasi-fictional drama, more focused on shock value and titillation than fact.” He brings up an important point. When interpersonal drama gets the main spotlight, the danger lies in bypassing discussion of animal exploitation for the sake of entertainment. The main pull of Tiger King seems to be the drama between Baskin and Exotic. But, let’s hope the series also lifted the veil of ignorance that had previously been covering up cases of animal mistreatment and cruelty.
While he seems to advocate for the animals now, Antle did not come across so saintly in the series. In one episode, Doc responded to the Big Cat Safety Act, saying, “this seems un-American to me.” This implies that Antle views the animals as property, subject to the whims of anyone with money.
So, Who’s the Villain?
Lions, tigers, and other big cats are wild, often dangerous animals that you wouldn’t want to get stuck in a cage with. But, Tiger King presents a highly ironic message: Human behavior, driven by ego and ignorance, can do much more damage than any sharp teeth and strong jaws.
The issue of facades remains a large one, as the personalities of Tiger King scramble to save face in light of the series’ popularity. Joe, Carole, Lowe, and Doc currently frame themselves as the good guys, even though all of them possess shady track records. Truth is still being pulled from their stories. Therefore, it's challenging to judge without all of the facts present.
Director Eric Goode remarked, “The other thing I would say about all these people is that there was a lack of intellectual curiosity to really go and understand or even see these animals in the wild. Certainly, Carole really had no interest in seeing an animal in the wild. The lack of education, frankly, was really interesting — how they had built their own little utopias and really were only interested in that world and the rules they had created.”
Unlike fiction, which often has just one antagonist, real life isn’t so black and white. Ignorance, greed, ego… all of these are at play in the docuseries. Joe, Carole, Lowe, Doc (and Glover) committed objectively wrong deeds. Whether their intentions were good or bad remains subjective, especially when facades are strongest when exposed to fame. Everyone is allowed their own opinion. In fact, the countless debates over which Tiger King character is worse than the other, while fruitless in its conclusion, has opened a critical dialogue about wildlife malpractice. Let's keep the conversation going, uncover new facts, and turn awareness into action.
Written by Maddy Mazzotta
Edited by Jake Zall & Nick Mandala