The most popular show on Netflix has made a cult hero of a man who abused and killed caged animals.
I am referring to “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a documentary about a roadside zookeeper in Oklahoma named Joe Exotic, a.k.a Joe Maldonado-Passage a.k.a Joe Schreibvogel. He ran one of the largest tiger breeding and cub-petting operations in the country.
Joe Exotic is serving a 22-year sentence for wildlife crimes and a murder-for-hire plot to kill an animal rights activist. He is the Charles Manson of animal cruelty.
Animals in cages are vulnerable and helpless. According to a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who testified at his trial, Joe Exotic shot five of his tigers in the head to free up space to board tigers for money and sold baby tigers to persons who he knew would crush their skulls with a hammer. He ripped months-old baby tiger cubs away from their mothers and declawed them, which is akin to cutting off a person’s fingers. It can cause lameness, psychological distress and even death to the animals.
Sure, Joe Exotic was exotic. He was a gay man in Oklahoma who had two-tone hair and a pistol and wore sequins; at one point, he had two husbands. Yes, we are all getting a little crazy in self-isolation, which is why the insanity of “Tiger King” may have been so appealing. And the people behind “Tiger King” appeared more interested in showing us Joe’s colorful life than what he did to his animals. The directors barely interviewed wildlife experts, who would have wiped away Joe’s appeal if allowed to describe his cruelty in detail in “Tiger King.”
All that still does not excuse rapper Cardi B’s tweet that, despite his proven crimes, she was going to start a GoFundMe for Joe. “He shall be free,” she wrote. (Now she says she was only fooling.) It doesn’t excuse actor Jared Leto posting a picture on Instagram of himself in a Joe Exotic costume; or Sylvester Stallone and his family dressing up as the cast of “Tiger King”; or an endless number of actors posing as Joe Exotic in publicly posted photos meant to land them a role in a movie version; or the fans who approached Joe’s staff members, even in a pandemic, to shake their hands and take pictures.
Many of Joe’s staff, according to an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, abused, hit and mishandled animals. Yet the “bonus” episode of “Tiger King” was largely devoted to Joe’s business associates and employees. With smiles on their faces, they described how they have become celebrities and which actors should play them in a movie about Joe Exotic.
The Joe Exotic adulation will only encourage people to patronize private zoos like Joe’s. It certainly makes it easier for Joe Exotic to do his time because, according to “Tiger King’s” director, even in prison Joe’s fame has made him “happier than he has ever been.”
Joe Exotic and his accomplices deserve only revulsion and condemnation. A well-documented link exists between animal abuse, interpersonal violence and other serious crimes. As one study found, “indicators of animal abuse are remarkably similar to those of child abuse.” Forty-three percent of school shooters have abused animals. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer impaled frogs, cats and dogs’ heads on sticks.
If any good is to come out of “Tiger King,” Congress must finally pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would go a long way to stopping the mistreatment of the thousands of privately owned big cats in the United States. Such a law would have prevented the owner of “Tony the Tiger” to keep a Bengal-Siberian tiger in a cage at a Louisiana road-side gas station named the Tiger Truck Stop.
When animal activists tried to stop the sickening spectacle, Joe Exotic rallied support for the tiger’s owner. Before it was finally euthanized because of health problems, the tiger had spent its life in that cage.
No one should be entertained by any of this.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.