Eye of the Tiger

Big World, Small Town

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

Editor’s Note: The following column contains subject matter that is sexual in nature. Reader discretion advised.

Hey, all you cool cats and kittens. 

Now that we can no longer go out to eat or have a drink with friends, many of us have found ourselves with extra time on our hands. I’d like to say that I’ve spent my time working out more, training for a marathon or finishing a few long-neglected house projects. But if I told you that, I’d be lying.

No, I’ve spent my extra time watching Tiger King on Netflix.

If you don’t know about the documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness …well, I honestly feel sorry for you. When future historians teach courses about the COVID-19 crisis, they’ll surely spend significant time reflecting on why this quirky documentary about a polyamorous zookeeper became such a smash hit as the coronavirus rampaged across the globe.

Unlike in real life, no one in the Tiger King universe washes their hands each time they touch something. Heck, no one in the Tiger King universe bothers to wash their hands even after being attacked by a lion. I watched all seven episodes of the series, and I don’t think there was even a single reference to hand sanitizer.

Charles Thomas, Big World Small Town

Joe Exotic, the zookeeper in question, is the primary focus of Tiger King. While it may be hard to believe, Exotic is not Joe’s family name. There is sadly no Great Grandpa Ebenezer Exotic back in Joe’s family tree. Born Joseph Schreibvogel, Joe Exotic developed the eccentric persona on display in the documentary during the process of developing and operating the GW Zoo in Wynnwood, Oklahoma.

Tiger King explores the lives and struggles of Exotic and the other odd characters who work in the roadside zoo industry. While it’s clear from the beginning that Joe Exotic is not exactly the best kind of person, the series makes him enough of a sympathetic character that I found myself rooting for him in the pivotal final episode. While Exotic is at heart a narcissistic self-promoter who is willing to put others at risk to advance his career, it’s hard to turn away while he’s on the screen. Joe Exotic is the Donald Trump of zookeepers, so even when things get ugly, they never cease being entertaining. While Trump has become known for his trademark hair, Joe Exotic is defined by his feud with that damn Carole Baskin. It’s a feud that launched a thousand memes and nursed a weary nation through a pandemic.

People like Joe, who live large and loud lives, will always be interesting. Many of us are fascinated with the thrill seekers, the people who throw caution to the wind and do crazy things like opening zoos. They make decisions that most of us would be too afraid to make. As they’re thrill seekers, it made sense to me that two of the zookeepers profiled in Tiger King (Joe Exotic and Bhagavan Antle) openly practiced polygamy. I guess when you work in close proximity to killer tigers all day long, coming home to a single spouse would probably be a bit anti-climactic.

Being hedonists at heart, most of the people in Tiger King engage in sexual behavior that even today seems transgressive. There are the polygamists, of course, but there are also marriages between middle-aged men and very young women and a cult-like zoo culture designed for sexual seduction —not to mention a Prince Albert piercing that Joe is all too happy to discuss on camera. The people of Tiger King don’t care what you think about their obsession with big cats, and they don’t care about what you think of their sex lives either.

In the time of coronavirus, there’s something refreshing about seeing people live their lives so shamelessly, even if it’s just on a television screen. Unlike in real life, no one in the Tiger King universe washes their hands each time they touch something. Heck, no one in the Tiger King universe bothers to wash their hands even after being attacked by a big cat. I watched all seven episodes of the series, and I don’t think there was even a single reference to hand sanitizer.

The filmmakers work hard to play up the strangeness of their subjects. One man is interviewed almost exclusively with his shirt off, so the audience can see the canvass of tattoos that covers his body; while another is interviewed wearing shorts, so we can see that both of his legs are amputated. The creators of Tiger King also enjoy mocking their camera loving subjects for desperately trying to create interesting entertainment while they simultaneously do the exact same thing.

If you want to be offended, there’s plenty to be offended by. The big cats are treated poorly, and the staff of the GW Zoo seem to get treated little better. The filmmakers also seem to relish stereotyping rural Americans in a way that would be offensive if the target were anyone else. But while pretty much everyone featured in Tiger King is being exploited by the filmmakers in some way, most also seem to relish it. These are small town people smart enough to know what’s going on and who play along anyway because it’s fun to be the center of attention. Look at my crazy existence, they seem to be saying. I live my life with reckless abandon. Don’t you wish that you could, too?

Charles D. Thomas is a writer and psychotherapist who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

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