On Tiger King

If you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook in the past couple of weeks, you’ve heard about it. You’ve probably watched it. You’ve weighed in on some of the more outlandish theories, and created or shared ridiculous memes based on it. And you know what I’m talking about. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a seven-episode true crime documentary series on Netflix about owners of Tigers and other large cats, most of whom own and operate private zoos in the southern United States. It’s fairly salacious and completely impossible to turn off. It reminds me of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, in many ways, with the same impeccable editing and unrealistic cast of characters – except, of course, that this is theoretically real life. It was released on Netflix on March 20th, about 5 days into many people’s self isolation period due to COVID-19. And so, even considering that original Netflix series do have a history of entering the collective online zeitgeist (as seen with The Circle and Love Is Blind, but before that as well with Stranger Things and Russian Doll) and would have been a hit regardless, Tiger King is now everywhere. And as more and more movies are having their release dates pushed back (like Ghostbusters, No Time To Die, and Black Widow, among others), it seems that there won’t be new media releases to dethrone Tiger King.

Which is a shame, because I think that the urge to collectively accept Tiger King as quarantine’s great watch does a disservice to some of the people who were victimized by the creation of this documentary. Personally, I know that I watched the first three episodes in one sitting, texting my friends that they had to watch it with me. But once I watched the fourth episode, I found the tone to be more off-putting, as the subject matter grew more serious. The documentarians seemed to be making light of the alleged animal abuse, sexual abuse, and the murder-for-hire plot that becomes central to the back half of the series. If you’ve seen the series, you’ll know that there’s an extremely disturbing death that happens off screen. Having said all that, it’s hard for me to know what to do with the series. I can’t deny that it was extremely entertaining, and is undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon – but I no longer feel inclined to take part in some of the more humorous memes. What can I say? Self isolation has turned me into a bit of a downer.

After all that, you may be looking for a palate cleanser, or perhaps a deeper dive into some of these topics. With that in mind, I’ve created a list of 5 movies, documentaries, or books that you may be interested in once you’re done watching Tiger King. All of the following titles are available for free on Vaughan Public Libraries electronic databases – you’ll just need a library card to check them out.

The cover of the book Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi Patel and a tiger named Richard Parker coexist on a lifeboat for 227 days. This novel was chosen for CBC’s Canada Reads in 2003, and spurred many debates about what aspects of the story were supposed to be truth and reality, and what was metaphorical.


the cover of the book SwamplandiaSwamplandia by Karen Russell. A novel about a family of alligator wrestlers living at a theme park in the Florida Everglades. When the matriarch of the family, and the central headliner of their theme park, falls ill, it falls on the shoulders of thirteen-year-old Ava to save the park and her family’s way of life. Expect lush storytelling, and an ultimately heart-warming coming of age story, with the same sort of quirky characters and hijinks that drew you to Tiger King.

the cover of the book american painAmerican Pain by John Temple. By the end of Tiger King, it becomes apparent that many of the employees at the zoo, and other people featured in the documentary, are habitual drug users – probably methamphetamine, as stated by the series. I can’t imagine that a recreational drug habit would lend itself well to feeding and taking care of tigers to the best of their ability. While I couldn’t find a non-fiction book or documentary about the meth epidemic plaguing the United States that is immediately available on Hoopla or Overdrive, American Pain might be a similar readalike. American Pain is about several health professionals that were able to exploit lax oversight of the pharmaceutical trade and open several medical clinics in Florida, essentially selling opioids like oxycontin, and taking advantage of vulnerable people for their own profit. This title is available as an audiobook on Hoopla.

the cover of the book mcmafiaMcMafia by Misha Glenny. Were you intrigued by the allusions to Doc Antle and Joe Exotic’s black-market dealings of tiger cubs, and whatever exactly Jeff Lowe was getting up to Vegas? McMafia is a study of the global criminal underworld that may shed some light on these undertakings. Reporter Misha Glenny intereviewed everyone from police, victims, and even criminals themselves for this book.

the cover of the movie blackfish. never capture what you can't control is the subtext.Blackfish. Blackfish is a documentary about the ethical and moral considerations of capturing wild animals (in this case, orcas), and using them for entertainment purposes. If by the end of Tiger King, you’re more interested in animal welfare and conservation issues, this might be a good next step.

3 thoughts on “On Tiger King

  1. Timely post! As one of the rare people who doesn’t have Netflix, I haven’t had a chance to see this show, but the premise really troubles me. The exploitation of animals for entertainment doesn’t appeal to me at all, even with a charismatic protagonist like Joe Exotic. Life of Pi is an amazing novel- really grips you and leaves you with so much to think about. Blackfish is another must-see, although very disturbing at times. Great suggestions Rachel!

  2. I’m just watching Tiger King right now, and it’s… a wild ride for sure. I’m only halfway through, I think just past the disturbing off-screen death you mentioned (unless there’s another one coming up), which had a bunch of foreshadowing in that episode leading up to the death (I actually thought it was going to be on-screen and was preparing for the moment I’d have to turn away).

    McMafia sounds really interesting! I’ve watched Blackfish before, and I remember it was pretty heartbreaking.

  3. Your comparison to a Christopher Guest movie is spot on! It’s hard to believe the cast of Tiger King is real. Like you, I sped through the first few episodes cackling at everything, because the show just throws EVERYTHING at you at once. But that off-screen death really shook me–I remember pausing the show for a bit and texting my friend group chat in all caps. I found that the animal abuse weirdly took a back seat to all the other criminal activity, which is probably why I was able to speed through all the episodes without too much trouble. But truly, I’ve never been so “Team No One” about a cast of people. There are maybe like two decent people in the whole show haha.

    Anyway, thanks for these book recs!

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