Netflix’s Tiger King is the true crime release we need right now

Tiger King will make you completely forget about coronavirus.

The seven-part documentary series, which launched on Netflix on March 20, is packaged as a true crime caper in the vein of Making A Murderer or The Staircase. But it’s much, much weirder than either of those shows – albeit just as dark and troubling.

Everything about this is mind-boggling – and it just keeps getting more and more unfathomable as each episode unfolds. It focuses on the feud between Joe Exotic, the proprietor of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma full of tigers, lions and other big cats, and Carole Baskin – who runs a sanctuary for rescued big cats, and who wants to put him out of business.

But it’s different to Netflix’s previous true crime hits. Here, many of the ‘wait, what?’ moments come way before the central ‘crime’ has actually taken place. The world that these people live in beggars belief – it’s a universe where drug-dealing millionaires raise tiger cubs in their living room, where a guy drives around with a caged snow leopard in the back of his van, where a woman gets her arm ripped off and is back at work a week later.

Exotic is like something out of a sketch show – a gun-toting country and western singer with a dyed blonde mullet, who runs his own online television channel and is in a three-way marriage with two other men.

He clearly has some bond with the animals in his collection, but he’s also exploiting them: breeding them for sale to private collectors across the United States, which has more pet tigers than there are wild ones left in the world; charging tourists hundreds of dollars to pet and cuddle lion and tiger cubs; feeding both the animals and his staff with discarded meat from the bins outside Wal-Mart.

The story follows Exotic’s feud with Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for lions, tigers, ocelots, bobcats and others who have been rescued from dire situations and owners who bought them when they were small and cute, but struggled to deal with the challenges of looking after a fully grown tiger.

Tigers are incredibly lucrative when they’re young and docile enough to be held by paying guests and used in photos, but after a certain age, they’re just expensive. Baskin purports to be cleaning up the mess that gets created by irresponsible private collectors, by taking cats out of the market and not breeding them in captivity like many of the others.

But this isn’t a simple case of good against bad – Baskin’s own motivations are deeply suspect – she also makes money by selling tickets to the public to view the tigers. The cages at Big Cat Rescue are just as cramped as the ones at Joe Exotic’s park, and she has an army of unpaid people working for her in a cult-like system. In fact, there’s the feeling of a cult to a number of the people in the show – Exotic plucks people who have been newly released from prison and pays them barely anything. Doc Antle, another unbelievable character in this world, has a cabal of young women working for him at any one time, in bizarre circumstances.

Baskin and her team do everything in their power to try to bring down Exotic’s business – when he books shows at shopping malls, they organise email campaigns to persuade the malls to cancel. Exotic retaliates by attacking Baskin on his internet television station – which puts out a show every night following events at the park – and in a bewildering music video which you have to watch in context. Eventually, he goes too far – and the show opens with a phone call from prison, where Exotic is being held awaiting trial accused of hiring someone to kill Baskin.

The director, Eric Goode – who stumbled upon the story while researching something about illegal reptile trading – does a great job of highlighting the plight of these animals, who live their whole lives in captivity. He does an even better job of skewering the hypocrisy of the people in this industry, who make millions exploiting the creatures they claim to love.

At a time when it feels like we’re all living in a work of low-rent fiction, Tiger King offers a harrowing, unbelievable, just flat out bonkers distraction. We all need it.

Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala

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