The first few seconds of the Netflix show Tiger King was the first time I had ever heard the name Joe Exotic — which baffled me. A character of such caliber, for lack of a better word, surely couldn’t have gone completely under my radar for so long right here in my own country of origin.
But as I watched — and watch, I did, all the way to the end — I became more and more mystified by the cast of characters. The world of exotic animal ownership is something I have had absolutely zero experience with.
I went to college with a guy who had an albino python. Her name was Baby, and her eyes were a deep red. She is, by far, the most exotic thing I’ve seen kept as a pet in someone’s house.
But the folks in Tiger King, acting in some way like they belong in a world where lions and tigers walk around with them as pets, were so far removed from the people I’ve known in my life that it was as if I were watching something from a different planet, not simply a different state.
I can’t say I connected with many of the people in the show. Erik, a long-haired man of few words, masked behind sunglasses — him, I felt like I understood. He spoke little of the people involved in scandal after scandal and chose to fixate on the animals. He was there for the animals. He was concerned that they were being fed and was appalled when they weren’t being taken care of. Erik shrugged off secondary drama, and I found commonality there when nowhere else.
The people who told the cameras, time and again, that they loved these animals in one scene, then fed them rejected Walmart meat in the next, or that they only wanted to protect the animals in one scene and spent thousands of dollars in bullshit litigations with other zoo owners in the next, became impossible to sympathize with.
By the end, watching the desperate shambles of a number of lives, I couldn’t feel anything resembling sympathy. Just morbid curiosity. This was a tiger-striped train wreck I couldn’t pull my eyes from.
I watched, with the rest of America, with rapt interest.
So now I would have something to say to the people around the virtual water cooler come Monday morning. (Or is it Thursday afternoon? All the days blur together.)
And that, really, was the connection I was seeking all along. ν
Tiger King is available to stream on Netflix.