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Tiger King (2020) By Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode - Review

Tiger King (2020) By Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode - Review

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020) Directors: Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode Stars: Joe ExoticCarole and Howard BaskinJeff and Lauren Lowe, Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, John Finlay, Travis Maldonado, Dillon Passage, John Reinke, Erik Cowie, Kelci Saffery, Allen Glover, Joshua Dial, James Garretson, Tim Stark, Larry Rhodes, Amanda Green, Sylvia Corkill, and Rick Kirkham Total Runtime: 317 min Rated: TV-MA

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films, TV and media from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)

Tiger King: Why we need a Saviour

Sometimes certain stories bubble to the surface of the public consciousness only under the right circumstances. The tragic and unfortunate story of Joe Schreibvogel has been pressing hard for years to gain notice including documentary films like Joe Exotic - The Tiger King (2013) by Jt Barnett, and J.D. Thompson’s Joe Exotic The Life Exotic: Or the Incredible True Story of Joe Schreibvogel (2016). But the story of Joe Exotic— a gay, gun toting, presidential and gubernatorial candidate, and “big cat” zoo owner/operator —finally clicked with audiences with the addition of a true crime element. Add to that recipe a worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and people either working from home or cooped up at home with social media memes acting as the office water cooler, and audiences finally got hooked. The NETFLIX limited series documentary Tiger King (2020) directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode sank its claws into unexpected viewers with its bizarre story of volatile competing personalities, methamphetamine-fuelled sham gay relationships and sex cults, Las Vegas party scene con-artists, and animal rights activists devolving into a revenge murder-for-hire plot.

The seven-episode documentary is carefully crafted to come hard out of the gate introducing the most over-the-top motley crew of characters imaginable with each episode ending with a hook building the viewer’s curiosity coaxing them to continue watching with the promise of even more shocking and strange revelations. And it delivers. Average law-abiding viewers are amazed that such a seedy world of endangered animal breeding for fame and profit even exists and likely shocked that a tiger could be bought for roughly $2,000. The reason tigers are surprisingly low-priced is that when they are full grown they are expensive to maintain and feed. So zoos like Joe Exotic’s G. W. Zoo continually need room for more big cats because the most lucrative and popular activity offered is the hands-on pet-for-pay lion and tiger cub experience. As the cubs grow into full size lions and tigers they become too dangerous for most people to play with. Even people who work around them every day can suffer serious injury as was the case for Kelci Saffery a G.W. Zoo animal keeper who lost her arm when she was mauled by a full-grown tiger.

The baby tigers however are a huge draw and garner the attention of groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and individuals like Carole and Howard Baskin of Florida’s “Big Cat Rescue” who fought to shut down Joe Exotic and other privately-owned zoos. Her main complaint, aside from living conditions and general care of the animals, centres on the pet-for-pay lion and tiger cub experience. She claims it creates a situation where younger cats eventually bump older cats out of their enclosures leading to black market animal sales to other private zoos or individuals. Carole and Howard Baskin accuse Joe Exotic and others of running the equivalent of “lion and tiger puppy mills” while failing to adequately maintain the ever-growing prides of endangered cats. They also say Joe engages in deceptive euthanization and disposal of the animal remains while attempting to fly under the radar of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) amounting to gross negligence and animal cruelty. Joe Exotic doesn’t see it that way.

The feud between the unstable Joe Exotic and the persistent, eccentric Carole Baskin eventually develops into the murder-for-hire plot involving criminals, ex-cons, federal investigators, and attorneys. There is hardly an individual in the whole sordid plot who could be considered noble or blameless.

For anyone familiar with the Large Catechism found in the Lutheran Confessions this passage by Martin Luther might come to mind: “In short, if you steal much, you can expect that much will be stolen from you; He who robs and gets by violence and wrong will submit to one who shall act the same way toward him. For God is master of this art. Since everyone robs and steals from one another, God punishes one thief by means of another. Or else where would we find enough gallows and ropes?” (LC: BOC, Page 540)

By the end of Tiger King there is an arrest and conviction but none of the individuals involved is less guilty than the others. When Carole Baskin brought civil court cases against Joe Exotic draining his finances and threatening the closure of his zoo, it created a situation in which the increasingly desperate Joe felt justified embezzling funds from his new business partners— the Las Vegas party couple and entrepreneurs Jeff and Lauren Lowe. Jeff Lowe who came to the zoo’s rescue only did so to have access to tiger cubs to use as bait to pick up sexual partners along the Vegas strip with his wife Lauren. When he discovered Joe’s embezzlement of funds intended to run the zoo being used to prop up his political campaigns Jeff hatched a scheme to see Joe put away for plotting to have Carole Baskin murdered. Few individuals connected to Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin have clean hands in the matter; they use each other for personal gain of one kind or another. Sadly, the tigers, lions, and other wild and endangered animals take a back seat to the personal drama and dangerous behaviours of the central figures.

Christian viewers of Tiger King know that “over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we still have another - honor and good reputation [Proverbs 22:1]. We cannot do without these. For it is intolerable to live among people in open shame and general contempt. Therefore, God does not want the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished, just as with his money and possessions. He wants everyone to stand with integrity before wife, children, servants, and neighbors.” (LC: BOC, Page 543)

It’s hard to watch a documentary that lays bare almost every fault and accusation that reside in a person or could be leveled against them. And while Carole Baskin is held in high regard by all the cool cats and kittens who follow and admire her “Big Cat Rescue” compound in Florida, other private zoo owners like Doc Bhagavan Antle of the “Myrtle Beach Safari” hold her in contempt calling her a hypocrite pointing out how she also profits from lions and tigers. He further suggests that the long-standing rumours of her involvement in her second husband’s death are more than rumour. Joe Exotic is less kind when speaking of Carole Baskin feeling self-justified to escalate his vendetta because he believes the rumours about her and felt he was helping the cause of justice against a hypocritical woman who had gotten away with murder. Much of the documentary’s crass and unsalutary language comes from Joe Exotic’s expletive-laden screeds against Carole Baskin. To be fair after Baskin’s second husband, exotic cat enthusiast Don Lewis, vanished seemingly into thin air on August 18th 1997 a real mystery surrounding Lewis’ whereabouts and whether he is dead or alive emerged and to this day his disappearance remains unsolved.

The Lutheran Large Catechism is a commendable work of Christian writing in part due to the way it speaks to the worst of situations with such wisdom. For those who have watched Tiger King (this review is not a recommendation), think how much better Joe Schreibvogel/Exotic’s life would be if he could only restrain himself and consider this one piece of advice: “Let no one do any harm to his neighbour with the tongue, whether friend or foe. Do not speak evil of him, no matter whether it is true or false, unless it be done by commandment or for his reformation. Let everyone use his tongue and make it serve for the best of everyone else, to cover up his neighbour's sins and infirmities, excuse them, conceal and garnish them with his own reputation. The chief reason for this should be the one Christ declares in the Gospel, where He includes all commandments about our neighbour, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” [Matthew 7:12] (LC: BOC, Page 550) Likewise St. Paul provides this wonderful advice, “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands,” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). For the most part, people working for Joe Exotic aspire towards this goal.

To his credit Joe Exotic, whatever his motivations might have been, employed folks who were hard to employ. He surrounded himself with individuals who came to work at the G. W. Zoo when they were down on their luck. They grew to love the tigers, lions, and other animals and showed loyalty towards Joe Exotic even when it was hard to. At times it is only men like John Reinke the zoo’s manager who could find kind words to say of Joe or at least words tempered with kindness. G. W Zoo zookeeper Kelci Saffery said that while she thought justice was served when it came to Joe Exotic, the thought of him dying in prison was wrong. Saffery also commended Joe Exotic for his charity work feeding the hungry. She said all this during a post-documentary wrap-up eighth episode and along the way always spoke well of Joe Exotic even when it appears she had every reason not to. This is the peculiar nature of Joe Exotic; he garners both intense admiration and disdain even when he is objectively being deceptive and abusive to the people around him.

Another aspect bearing some contemplation by Christian viewers is the way the program presents sexuality. Jeff and Lauren Lowe’s swinger lifestyle, albeit equally manipulative, predatory, and well outside the proscription given by God for Christians to lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, pales in comparison to the details of Joe Exotic’s relationships. His gay lifestyle doesn’t fit neatly into the popular paradigm that sexual orientation is innate and that a person cannot choose one or another sexual orientation. At one point Joe Exotic says his problem was he kept falling in love with straight men which somehow didn’t stop him from convincing two of them to “marry” him at the same time. (This polyamorous throuple wasn’t legal and isn’t in keeping with Christian marriage between one man and one woman.) It also appears that John Finlay and Travis Maldonado entered into their relationship largely due to Joe Exotic supplying them with access to exotic animals, drugs, vehicles, and guns. While consenting to a sexual relationship with Joe Exotic as his “husbands,” at the same time they secretly engaged in heterosexual relationships behind Joe’s back. For his part, Joe Exotic repeatedly gravitated to young and impressionable men whom he could easily manipulate and entice to the lifestyle he offered. These relationships have a tendency to end tragically as was the case of Travis Maldonado who died of an accidental self-inflicted gun shot to the head from a handgun received as a gift from Joe Exotic.

Maldonado’s death didn’t slow Joe down for long. The documentary ends with him in another relationship with an impressionable young man named Dillon Passage. To further complicate things, Joe Exotic takes on some of the last names of these men further removing himself from Schreibvogel—his given surname. While he legally changed his last name to Exotic, he now calls himself Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage. To say there is significant confusion and self-deception involved in these relationships would be an understatement.

Another manipulative and abusive series of sexual relationships centres around Mahamayavi Bhagavan Antle, born Kevin Antle and best known as Doc Antle of the “Myrtle Beach Safari.” He styles himself after a Hindu guru using ideas rooted in Siddha Yoga like Shaktipata where the initiate is said to achieve spiritual awakening and an infusion of energy from their spiritual master through touch. Bhagavan is a Sanskrit word meaning Lord and holds a connection to divinity within Hinduism. Antle uses this cloak of mystery along with his private exotic animal zoo to cultivate a harem of young women for his personal pleasure. Often preying on young and impressionable girls, one of Antle’s former apprentices, Barbara Fisher, felt pressured into having sex with him and said that doing so would have advanced her career at the zoo and that the best jobs went to the girls who became Antle’s sexual partners.

Tiger King is a sensationalist piece of documentary filmmaking but don’t dismiss it out of hand because of its tabloid enticements. It is also highly manipulative and sophisticated in its presentation and edited to elicit judgment from viewers. As a result there is literally something for everyone. If a viewer is for more regulation in the breeding and sale of exotic animals, they will have a plot to follow; if a viewer is a proponent of wide open Second Amendment gun ownership rights and libertarian extreme free speech, they will likewise find a plot to follow. If viewers simply want a true crime drama, they will find what they are looking for. It has bits and pieces of every reality show imaginable. Joe Exotic even has eccentric country music videos written by Washington state musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton which he lip syncs as if he wrote and sung them.

After watching Tiger King viewers can say with confidence the words first penned by King Solomon “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecclesiastes 1:14–15). Joe Exotic occasionally talks about God and even prays. Christian viewers may want to remember this and pray for Joseph Allen Schreibvogel that he would walk away from his self-fashioned personas of Joe Exotic and Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage and look to the one who can take a crooked, lacking life and make it whole. There is no hope that any of these, or anyone for that matter, can truly or eternally find repair for their broken state in this shattered world outside of Christ Jesus.

The real challenge for many viewers will be to avoid passing judgement on the motley crew of characters and their complex, broken lives. Christians will want to remember St. Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–11). Everyone needs salvation even if their life is not as wild and crazy as shown in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

All Large Catechism quotes taken from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, A Readers Edition of the Book of Concord Pocket Edition, Concordia Publishing House 2005.

This review also available at The Canadian Lutheran online.