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The Tiger King phenomenon

What is Netflix’s latest investigative documentary about, probably the most watched TV show in the world these days

In 2014, the environmental artist and philanthropist Eric Goode was in Florida to shoot a documentary about the reptile trade in the United States. One day, in the parking lot of a rare pet store in Homestead, his attention was captured by a customer, who, seeing him with the cameras, invited him to follow him. “What is a snow leopard doing inside this guy’s van?” Was the first thing he asked himself when he saw an extremely rare specimen kept in a cage under the scorching Florida sun.

It was at that time that Goode decided to put aside the reptile trafficking project to learn about the big cat market in America, a phenomenon that has grown a lot in recent decades as well as concerns about its possible consequences. Goode’s research on the subject therefore began at one of the largest private themed zoos in the United States, a remote place in the state of Oklahoma owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known as Joe Exotic, the protagonist of the documentary.

Joe Exotic quickly revealed himself to be a singular character in a lesser-known America. He called himself “an Oklahoma bifolco with the mullet, homosexual and polygamist”. When filming began, his zoo in Wynnewood had 187 specimens of big cats, not to mention alligators, crocodiles and chimpanzees. He lived at home with eight tiger cubs, inside a park managed with difficulty and with various stratagems. Many of his employees had been hired directly from the street, including homeless people and drug addicts: they lived in makeshift housing invaded by mice and ate goods close to the deadline, or already damaged, the same that was used to feed the animals.

Goode therefore began to get to know Joe and his world better and better. He noticed his undisputed qualities as an entertainer and a spirit of initiative actually out of the ordinary that pushed him to do a thousand different things: he made himself continuously shoot in almost everything he did, he managed a web TV and often wrote and recorded songs, whose video we advise you to watch (during the documentary he will also run for president of the United States and a little more seriously as governor of Oklahoma).

But he also noticed everything wrong, in particular his growing and disproportionate obsession with Carole Baskin, a Florida millionaire founder of a “sanctuary for animals”, who accused him of mistreatment and of managing animals purely for the purpose of profit. In his own way, Baskin was also a curious character. She had become a millionaire thanks to the inheritance left by her husband, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and she herself made profits with exotic animals kept in cages.

Joe’s obsession with Carole Baskin became the main narrative line of the documentary, taken over the past five years to the present day, in an often absurd scenario made up of constant grotesque and tragic episodes. From the day of its release on Netflix, Tiger King has quickly become a kind of cultural phenomenon in the United States, with very high audience ratings (also driven by the restrictions in place against the spread of the coronavirus): according to estimates by Rotten Tomatoes it is the thing most viewed today on Netflix.

The vast following created by Tiger King is not only due to two sui generis characters. The documentary can in fact be divided between the presentation of the story and its numerous developments, which go up to the first months of 2020 with the criminal implications of the facts told. As the documentary progresses, dozens of characters continue to add one more singular than the other, or at least with some interesting story to tell.

There is for example Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the owner of another large private zoo in South Carolina who defines his private life “not suitable for being told on television”, but that the documentary ends up telling in other ways: it is a famous tiger trainer, also a polygamist, who lures young and easily emotional girls to his zoo. Then there are Joe’s two “husbands”, lured by kids who knows where, probably relying on their drug addiction problems, and there is Jeff Lowe, an obscure businessman who enters the scene messing up everything.

Tiger King is divided into seven episodes of about fifty minutes, but does not seem to end with the last one. There are stories left unresolved and others that could arise from the appeals and interest of well-known personalities (such as Kim Kardashian, Cardi B or Alexandra Daddario). In Florida, meanwhile, it appears that a local sheriff is intent on reopening the investigation into the disappearance of Baskin’s husband.

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