TV Reviews

Joe Exotic, "Tiger King," and the Terrifying Truth About Cat People

The new Netflix documentary is so much crazier than you can imagine

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, John Oliver introduced the world to an eccentric write-in candidate who went by the professional alias Joe Exotic.

Joe ran a "private zoo for tigers" in Oklahoma and went through a rundown of his qualifications in clips that Oliver aired on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight: "I refuse to wear a suit … I am gay. I've had two boyfriends most of my life … I'm broke as sh*t, I have a judgment against me from some b*tch down there in Florida." With a pistol on his hip and fringe on his sleeves, Joe strutted around a tiger enclosure in a knee brace, wielding the cane he would later use to fend off a tiger attack. At the time Joe seemed like a quintessentially American character—deeply strange, but largely harmless. He was a folk hero of sorts—the kind of person who has made it his life's work to fully embrace who he is and expects the rest of the world to do the same.

Third Parties: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

The fact that he was the subject of a would-be reality show—Joe Exotic: Tiger King—made perfect sense. The fact that he was later arrested and convicted on a murder-for-hire charge betrayed the fact that he was not as harmless as he seemed. The new Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, dives deep into the dark side of Joe Exotic and of big cat collectors in general—introducing viewers to a world that is far stranger than even Joe's campaign videos suggest. Through a series of alarming twists and revelations, it leaves the viewers with a lot of questions and uncertainties but one irresistible conclusion: Exotic animal collectors—and big cat specialists in particular—are frightening people. Spoilers ahead.

There are five prominent collectors who participated in interviews for the documentary, detailing their histories with exotic animals and with the people they exploit to run their "zoos." One of these collectors, Mario Tabraue, is thought to be an inspiration for Al Pacino's Tony Montana in Scarface and was involved in the murder and dismemberment of a federal agent. His drug smuggling operation in the 1970s and '80s used exotic animal smuggling (also illegal, but less harshly punished) as a cover, and it even involved cutting snakes open to stuff them with bags of coc*ine. After serving 12 years of a 100-year sentence—and allegedly cooperating with authorities in other investigations—Tabraue was released and opened the Zoological Wildlife Foundation, which is now one of Florida's premiere private zoos. Tabraue's story is perhaps the least upsetting of the five.

Mario Tabraue with his wife Maria, a tiger cub, and a dog

The other four collectors are as follows: Jeff Lowe, the circus heir and "legitimate businessman," a walking midlife crisis who would smuggle baby tigers into Las Vegas hotels inside of suitcases as bait to lure young women to his hotel room; "Doctor" Bhagavan Antle, the spiritual guru, Hollywood animal wrangler, and possible cult leader with three wives/girlfriends, who houses his overworked staff of young, attractive female interns in roach-infested horse stalls and convinces them to change their names and get plastic surgery; Carole Baskin, the woman who started out as a big cat breeder who provided animal encounters but pivoted to advocating against those practices and operating the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary—with a massive team of overworked volunteers—after the sudden disappearance of her wealthy, philandering husband; and finally, of course, Joe Exotic himself.

Joe is the working-class version of the same big cat insanity the others represent, complete with a (lip-synced) country music career. In interviews, Joe speaks of his admiration for the domineering mystic figure of "Doc" Antle, who has been accused of killing his cats when they are no longer profitable and may or may not believe that his genitals can confer enlightenment—particularly upon virgins. Joe, on the other hand, had no interest in women or in mysticism. He loved men and tigers and guns and partying, and he devoted himself with passion to all four. When he felt that life and his park was at risk of being taken away, Joe once assured a TV reporter that it would result in "a mini Waco," referring to the deadly standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious sect in 1993.

Doc Antle with three tigers, his son Kody, and two of his wives

Joe's business relied largely on drug addicts, felons, and misfits whom Joe provided with a pittance, some expired meat, and what can loosely be referred to as housing in exchange for their work. If someone in the area of Wynnewood, Oklahoma was at the end of their rope, Joe would be there to offer them a fresh start...and some drugs. While many of his employees were undoubtedly saved from worse fates by Joe's intervention, Joe was never really interested in a "clean" lifestyle for himself or his staff. And when one of those desperate people whom he saved happened to be an attractive young man, Joe could provide for that young man's habits in exchange for sharing Joe's bed—regardless of their sexuality.

In Tiger King Joe openly acknowledges that he "fell in love with straight guys" and cites Wynnewood's demographics as his excuse. When one of Joe's two "husbands" (plural marriage is not legal in the US) John Finlay left him for the woman who worked at the animal park's front desk, he did so with noticeably fewer teeth than when their relationship started. Their "marriage" seems to have been largely based on smoking m*th together. Joe's other husband wasn't lucky enough to get out. Travis Maldonado was with Joe from the ages of 19 to 23 and, by all accounts, did little in that time other than get high, shoot guns, and sleep with the women at the park. He was in the offices of Joe's zoo when he accidentally shot himself in the head in 2017, playing with a gun that he believed to be unloaded. Joe was 54 at the time.

But the true insanity of Joe's story comes from his years-long feud with Carole Baskin—the woman he described in his campaign video as "some b*tch down there in Florida." In response to her many efforts to outlaw and stigmatize the practices at his and similar big cat parks—in particular the breeding and selling of big cats for up-close entertainment—Joe engaged in a campaign of harassment that generally focused on accusations of murder, hypocrisy, envy, and the sadistic slaughter of rabbits.

Carole Baskin posing with a lion at her Florida sanctuary

In daily internet broadcasts, Joe regularly insulted Carole Baskin and "the animal rights people," read from her diary, and depicted various kinds of violence against mannequins and sex dolls standing in for her. He made an entire song and accompanying music video claiming that she murdered her husband Don Lewis in 1997 (an accusation that Lewis' family finds eminently credible). But the step that wound up costing him everything was when he stole her Big Cat Rescue trademark for his own business.

The lawsuit that ensued would eventually result in a million dollar finding in favor of Baskin—a sum that Joe would never be able to pay. No doubt his eventual murder-for-hire plot was both an effort to get out from that financial burden and to enact some vengeance against Baskin—who made the continued operation of his park impossible and life much worse for the big cats that were living there. Along the way he had drained his elderly mother of her savings in order to keep on top of his legal fees.

Joe Exotic Country Music "Here Kitty Kitty"

It was around that time that Joe became concerned that his contract with Rick Kirkham—the man attempting to make a reality show out of Joe's life—offered little opportunity for Joe to profit, while opening him up to numerous legal liabilities regarding the dubious practices in his park. In March of 2015, the studio where Joe shot his Internet show was burned down in an act of arson that destroyed all of Kirkham's reality show footage along with a reptile house where seven alligator's and a crocodile were "boiled alive in a towering inferno."

Joe and the people in his life have attempted to direct suspicions toward Kirkham and toward Carole Baskin—whom they accuse of hiring Kirkham for the job. As for Joe, his defense is that he was out of town at the time and that he loves his animals too much to be involved. But those points are made suspect by his now-proven willingness to commit violent crimes by proxy and by the way he workshopped and dramatized that "towering inferno" line for a fundraising video.

Tiger King makes it clear that Joe Exotic is never above using the drama of a situation to his advantage as a performer. In episode five viewers are treated to Joe's eulogy at Travis Maldonado's funeral, which Joe turned into a stand-up performance before breaking out in (lip-synced) song.

Jeff Lowe with a liger

In 2018 Joe was convicted of two counts of murder-for-hire and of several crimes involving the treatment and sale of his cats. His beloved park now belongs to Jeff Lowe—who is in the process of re-branding and relocating. In January, Joe was finally sentenced to 22 years in prison. The story of how he got there features so many surprises and dark revelations that it would be impossible to do Tiger King justice here, but the resounding message is delivered in the first moments of episode one: "Animal people are nuts" one voice offers; and another chimes in, "The monkey people are a little bit different ... they're kind of strange. But the big cat people are backstabbing pieces of sh*t."

Whatever else you can glean from the five hours of insanity that is Tiger King, it's clear that—if you don't want to be mauled, sued, slandered, murdered, exploited, or brain-washed—you should never get involved with big cats or the kind of people who collect them. In other words: don't f*ck with cat people.

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Is Ghost in the Shell's Casting Really That Big of a Deal?

Whitewashing always matters, whether it's the first time or the hundredth

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised at how many of my social media friends are fighting incredibly hard to support huge corporations' rights to give minorities the shaft… yet again. Of course I'm talking about Ghost in the Shell and the casting choices made for the flick. Maybe if they were just starting out or low budget, we'd cut these production companies some slack, but DreamWorks and Paramount are doing just fine for themselves, and a film backed by such huge powerhouses would surely have the ability to cast a wide net while search for the starring role, correct? So what's the excuse?

But ok, The Major is cyborg. I get it. Cyborgs don't have to be Japanese. I know, I know. But here's the thing—there's also no reason why Cyborgs can't be Japanese. See where I'm going with this? If "we don't have to cast a minority in this role" was how movie roles were determined… well, I guess we'd have just about the same amount of white people in our media as we do now.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against white people. In fact, I am a white person. But guess what, I also can see that white people are going to be just fine if we lose a few roles in the name of accuracy and even, yes, simply giving someone else the opportunity.

White people are in the spotlight enough, don't you think?

But wait, am I overreacting? I mean, how much of a discrepancy is there really? Well, according to this study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, nearly three-fourths of actors in the top-grossing films in 2014 were white. A little over 12% were black, a bit over 5% were Asian, just under 5% were Hispanic, and around 4% were in that infamous category, "other."

Hold on, though, because I know what you're thinking. You're super informed (good, I like that!) and you happen to know that the 5% population of Asians in film pretty closely matches the just about 5% population of Asians in America. All good, right?


Most of those Asian actors have roles that either heavily rely on or perpetuate stereotypes, or they are actors that don't speak at all. This isn't the number of Asian leads or even quirky Asian sidekicks. According to the same study, of the top 100 films in 2014, over 40 of them have no Asian characters who speak on screen. None. Zero, zilch, nada. Do you know any Asian people? Do they speak? Do they have opinions? Do they affect the world around them in any way? Then I feel like it's clear that they are not being fairly represented in film. Oh, and of the films that do have Asians with speaking roles, keep in mind that a "speaking role" can be a sentence or two. It still doesn't mean the part has any substance or drives the plot in any way, or that they're not a token character perpetuating stereotypes. In fact, if you're a fan of Master of None, Dev's struggles on the "Indians on TV" episode might be coming to mind right now.

So, if we're being realistic, I think that if we counted the number of films with Asian actors where those actors' characters aren't racist caricature versions of themselves and actually have some bearing on the outcome of the movie, I'd imagine that number would be embarrassingly low.

Speaking of controlling the outcome of the movie, who has more power on set than the director? So how do the demographics of this powerful position add up? According to the same study, of the people who directed the top 700 films between 2007 and 2014 (excluding the year 2011 for reasons that are not entirely clear to me – that's kind of weird, Study on Inequality in Popular Films), only 2.4% – that's 19 directors out of 700 films that got made – were Asian or Asian American. This leads us to believe that it's not just acting roles, it's behind the scenes too; it's the whole industry.

So let's get back to Ghost in the Shell. Why does it matter if the main character is white? Aren't we getting a little up in arms over nothing here? After all, it's just one movie. But really, it's not. If you're familiar with John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, perhaps you've seen this little video entitled "Hollywood Whitewashing: How Is This Still a Thing?"

The clip cites, first, how people say something along the lines of how there aren't more minority actors because there aren't enough good roles for minority actors. It then goes on to give examples of movie after movie after movie that have roles that could be played by a minority, but instead are filled with white people. Prince of Persia is a film about a man from, well, Persia (that's in ancient Iran, for those of you keeping score at home). Who plays the Prince? Jake Gyllenhal. Emma Stone plays a character who is supposed to be half-Asian in Aloha. White actor after white actor was cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings, which takes place in Egypt (Egypt is on the continent of Africa, in case you missed that), and the lead roles were taken on by white men from Britain and Australia. Do white people live in African countries? Sure. Were Ramases and Moses white? No. The clip continues on to assure us that, of course, the movie Gods of Egypt learned from these mistakes and starred instead… a Scottish guy. Did you know John Wayne once played Genghis Khan? John. Wayne. As. Genghis. Khan. That was in The Conquerer. Marlon Brando even put on a cringey "Asian" accent to play a Japanese character once upon a time as well. Have you seen Breakfast at Tiffany's? Do you remember that Asian character?

Keep in mind that that dude would count as a speaking role for Asians in the study above. And that racist portrayal of was praised (praised!) as being "broadly exotic" by the New York Times in the 60s.

The clip goes on to make the excellent point that "when filmmakers get called out on whitewashing, the justification has less to do with black and white, and more to do with greed." They then quote Ridley Scott saying (and yes, this is a real quote), that he can't mount a high-budget movie "and say that my lead actor is Mohammad So-and-So from Such-and-Such." Because he wants more money, and using known, white actors gets you more money. Then it shows an unknown white actor in his movie in a role meant for an Egyptian. So money's one excuse, but it's not the whole story.

My favorite point in the clip, though is when it points out that "maybe all of this would be less egregious if any time an actor of color took on a traditionally white role, half the country didn't go apeshit." Like, seriously, guys, people were ready to boycott Star Wars: The Force Awakens because the trailer showed a black Storm Trooper. Storm Troopers are nearly always wearing helmets and full body armor. For all you know, Storm Troopers are, like, 95% black. And more importantly, why is this even a problem? And do you remember when Rue in Hunger Games was portrayed as black in the movie? Do you remember the outrage? And neither of these roles, either Rue or Storm Troopers in general, were even explicitly stated as being white in the source material. But take source material that should have minority characters and cast white actors instead? "What are you guys complaining about? Cyborgs don't have to be Japanese!"

The clip ends by reminding us that the problem isn't that the roles "aren't there," but rather that we'd rather put white people in those roles. "Just remember, the Academy gave Oscars for characters named O-Lan, Billy Kwan, and Luis Molina to actors named Louise, Linda, and William."

So it isn't really about Ghost in the Shell; it's about Hollywood doing this over and over and over. We're focusing on Asians here, but they're doing it to black people, Hispanic people, Middle Eastern people, and the list goes on. Honestly, if you're not white, they're doing this to you. They're representing you with token roles if they're representing you at all.

And what gets me is that people – people I know personally, even—are fighting for the production companies' right to continue. They're justifying, they're making excuses, and they're trying to explain it away. One person said to me that Americans don't want to see movies with actors who have accents. After someone pointed out that there are plenty of Asian-American actors with no accent, the next point was that most Asian American actors can't act. My rebuttal to that statement (other than that it's ridiculous) is how do we even know what Asian actors can and can't do? How many of them have actually been given the opportunity to prove themselves? The answer is an embarrassingly small number.

Finally, the biggest argument I see thrown around for Ghost in the Shell is that, hey, it's actually a decent adaptation of an anime. We don't get that enough. Let's not spoil it, guys!

And you know what that reminds me of? Those shirts I see sometimes pointing out America's hypocrisy when it comes to our acceptance of black people. The shirts read "America loves black people culture."

And this seems similar to me. You "love" anime, but not enough to give the people who created it adequate props? You don't want to support Japanese actors or directors, you just want more ways to consume the same anime you already like. You like Japanese culture, to hell with whether or not Japanese people are being given an equal seat at the table, equal, positive representation in the media, or equal chances to show us what they have to offer in the entertainment industry. Do you think it's going to stop with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, have you seen the casting for the upcoming live-action adaptation of Death Note?

Of course this time it's about the Japanese, but it's been every minority there is, and it will continue to be as long as we keep making excuses. Ghost in the Shell is important right now because it's the latest in a clear trend that shows little sign of slowing down. It's not really that movie alone, but rather what it represents: a continuance of the disrespect of and disservice to minorities perpetuated by Hollywood and eaten up again and again by the money-spending public. Ghost in the Shell came out to mixed reviews, but it has still grossed $62 million worldwide. Tell me that won't encourage them to just do the same thing again. (And again, and again.)