The Other McCain

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Crazy People Are Dangerous: If You’re Watching ‘Tiger King,’ You Know It

Posted on | April 18, 2020 | Comments Off on Crazy People Are Dangerous: If You’re Watching ‘Tiger King,’ You Know It


What remarkable luck — five years ago, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin began working on a documentary about Americans who own private menageries of exotic animals and, almost accidentally, found their protagonist in an eccentric Oklahoma zoo owner, Joe Schreibvogel, a/k/a “Joe Exotic.” In 2019, he was sentenced to federal prison, giving their documentary its dramatic conclusion, and their film was released on Netflix just about the time the coronavirus lockdown created a captive audience. During its first 10 days of release, more than 30 million people watched Tiger King, which instantly attained the status of cult classic.

The other day, my son Jefferson and I binge-watched the first three or four episodes (I lost count), and it’s easy to see what has made this the most successful documentary in history. Prior to the release of Tiger King, little attention was paid to the strange subculture of exotic animal collectors. Bizarre fact: The number of tigers privately owned in America exceeds the number of tigers that live in the wild. We might take patriotic pride in this fact — an endangered species is flourishing here, thanks to American capitalism — but the filmmakers are not sympathetic to the private ownership of exotic cats. (Producer Eric V. Goode is a wealthy conservationist.) And the type of people who pursue the hobby (or business) of breeding tigers and other exotic species in captivity . . .

Well, “eccentric” is perhaps the most polite adjective that comes to mind.

These people are not just crazy, they’re trashy. You have never in your life seen so much trash outside of a landfill. The filmmakers do an excellent job of conveying this with subtlety. For example, after our introduction to Joe Exotic and his downscale zoo in Oklahoma, we then meet Kevin Antle, a/k/a “Doc Antle,” a/k/a “Mahamayavi Bhagavan Antle,” owner of T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Doc Antle with Jay Leno on ‘The Tonight Show’ in 2003.

In contrast to Joe Exotic’s redneck persona, Antle seems far more reputable. Antle is a multimillionaire who has worked as an animal trainer for such big-time Hollywood productions as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the 1998 remake of Dr. Doolittle. Antle’s attraction in Myrtle Beach is very professional-looking and charges more than $600 for admission, giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with these animals. However . . .

Antle appears to be running a sex cult, with multiple “wives” chosen from among his female employees. We meet a former employee who joined Antle’s operation as an 18-year-old and left after more than a decade, describing her experience at T.I.G.E.R.S. as something akin to slavery.

Another exotic animal owner we meet — who “seems chill,” in my son’s words — is a former Miami cocaine kingpin who served time in federal prison for the murder of an FBI undercover agent. And so it goes with everyone we encounter in Tiger King. There are no heroes here, no one you would think of as members of the respectable bourgeoisie. In general, they could be categorized as “grifters,” who in one way or another have cashed in on the public fascination with rare exotic animals. The producers are holding up a mirror to American society, inspiring us to ask why so many people are willing to pay money to have their picture taken with a tiger. How did the “tiger selfie” become a status symbol?

One is reminded of the old saying about legislation and sausage, and how you don’t want to know what goes into making it. The business of breeding wild animals in captivity, which makes it possible for people to pay for that “tiger selfie,” attracts a certain type of person, because the work required behind the scenes is not something that the respectable bourgeois would be interested in doing, or even knowing about. For example, an adult tiger requires a diet of a certain number of pounds of meat daily. This is quite expensive, and early in the series we are told that Joe Exotic has more than 200 tigers in his Oklahoma zoo.

That number boggled my son’s mind: “Two hundred? What the . . .?”

My son had thought that somebody would own maybe 10 tigers, which would still be a lot of tigers, but 200? “That’s an insane number of tigers.” How did Joe Exotic go from zero tigers to more than 200 in less than decades? Ah, but how is not the question, rather why.

It’s about the cubs, you see. Federal safety regulations do not allow for the general public to interact with exotic big cats as adults because an adult tiger (spoiler alert) might bite your arm off. What these private zookeepers can do, however, is let someone handle a tiger cub, up to a few months in age. Thus, exhibitors like Joe Exotic must have their cats continually breeding, producing new litters of cubs on a regular basis, to give them the product that pays their bills.

Perhaps you see the problem with this. If the big money is to be made with baby tigers, what happens when they grow up? Well, animal-rights activists, whom I despise quite generally, have nonetheless made a reasonable point in voicing their suspicions that some of these private menagerie owners are killing their “excess” adult animals. After all, what is the bottom-line incentive of continuing to feed hundreds of pounds of meat every month to adult tigers and lions, if these animals make no meaningful contribution to the profit of your operation?

And then, of course, there is Joe Exotic’s nemesis, Carole Baskin.

What an evil witch she is, masquerading as philanthropic animal-rights activist when she is not really any better than the for-profit zookeepers whom she attacks in the name of “animal rights.” Joe Exotic made many mistakes in his life, but none was more foolish than ramping up his personal feud with Baskin’s “Big Cat Rescue” into an obsession.

This reminded me, actually, of Bill Schmalfeldt, who in 2012 decided to make himself part of the Brett Kimberlin saga, and didn’t stop until . . .

Well, you can read the files about Bill at Hogewash.

Joe Exotic had a habit of making boastful threats. He was going to “destroy” Carole Baskin, et cetera, and as my son observed, you feel sorry for Joe because he has so obviously gotten in over his head, antagonizing Baskin in ways that are certain to boomerang back against him.

Did I mention that Carole Baskin murdered her second husband?

Allegedly,” I hasten to add.

Missing millionaire Don Lewis (left) and his widow, Carole Baskin (right).

Don Lewis was a successful businessman, a 42-year-old married father of four in 1981 when he first met 20-year-old Carole Jones Murdock. Lewis was a rather notorious womanizer, and commenced an affair with Carole, a high-school dropout who was also married at the time. Carole divorced her first husband and, in 1991, became Mrs. Don Lewis. Six years later, however, Don was ready to divorce Carole, whom he claimed had threatened to kill him. Then one day, Don mysteriously disappeared.

Five years later, Carole had Don declared legally dead, and thus inherited his substantial fortune, rumored to be several million dollars, and including the Florida property which she subsequently turned into Big Cat Rescue. You see, among his other enterprises, Don had been a collector of exotic wild animals, including dozens of big cats, and Carole’s enemies — chief among them, Joe Exotic — suspect that after killing her husband, Carole feed Don’s remains to the tigers. Such is the suspicion expressed by several people in Tiger King, but as a professional journalist certainly I would never make such an accusation myself, because that might be construed as libel. You can Google it yourself, however.


As I say, there are no heroes in Tiger King, and whether or not Don Lewis was murdered, he was no innocent saint. Adultery is a sin, after all, and perhaps the “Red Pill” guys like Rollo Tomassi would find some lesson in whatever happened to Don Lewis, who was definitely an Alpha male.

As every student of Aristotle knows, hubris is essential to tragedy. In his arrogance, the protagonist fails to recognize the destructive fate which approaches, and there is a lot of hubris evident in the fate that befalls Joe Exotic. He staffs his Oklahoma zoo with the lowest sort of human trash, perhaps not merely as a way of saving money — his people work for substandard wages — but also because ex-convicts and drug addicts can be bossed around more easily. One cannot help but notice that Joe Exotic is not alone among big-cat aficionados in having a domineering, control-oriented personality. All of them, Carole Baskin included, take pleasure in the superiority of their status within their private fiefdoms, a status that requires a number of inferior minions to do their bidding. There is a sadistic quality to this type of personality; such people cannot see others as equals, and so they will always seek out or create situations in which they are the unquestioned Boss, surrounded by lackeys and sycophants.

The spirit of voluntary cooperation — teamwork in pursuit of a common goal — is alien to the domineering personality. There is nothing wrong with ambition, and every team must have its leaders, but anyone who aspires to such a role generally will encounter an institutional structure that requires them to “pay their dues” and work their way up the ranks before obtaining a position of independent leadership. Nick Saban didn’t just decide one day to start a football team and appoint himself as head coach. No, he first worked as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Kent State, in 1973, and spent the next 16 years as an assistant coach (at Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, etc.) before finally getting his first head coaching job in 1989 at Toledo State, when he was almost 40. It was more than a decade later that Saban became head coach at LSU, where he led the Tigers to the National Championship before being hired at the University of Alabama in 2007, when he was age 56.

Nick Saban did not suffer from a lack of ambition, and he is a demanding taskmaster, but you see that he had to pay his dues, working within the system, to make it to the top of his field. This is a very different thing than the way someone like Joe Schreibvogel makes himself the boss of a private zoo, and collects a bunch of underlings to do his bidding. Even the more respectable operators, like Doc Antle, are part of a fringe subculture that lacks the kind of institutional framework that limits the authority of the boss. You may see Nick Saban shouting on the sidelines and think he’s some kind of tyrant, but he is accountable to the university, and governed by the authority of the NCAA, so that he must work within the limits of this framework. While there have been documented abuses within the world of college athletics, the process by which someone becomes a head football coach is such that the wheat are separated from the chaff. You can’t buy your way into an NCAA head coaching job, the way that a Miami drug kingpin bought himself a menagerie of exotic pets.

Viewers of Tiger King are sympathetic to Joe Exotic because they see him as an underdog who fought (and lost) a war against a powerful enemy. The animal-rights movement, as personified by Carole Baskin, has enough money and prestige to make life miserable for private zoo owners.

The regulatory power of the federal government is part of this equation. In addition to allegedly trying to hire a hitman to kill Carole Baskin — oops, spoiler alert! — Joe Exotic was sent to prison for violating two federal laws, the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. It is quite probable that these laws that Joe Exotic was convicted of violating have also been violated by many other proprietors of private menageries, but Joe more or less drew a target on his own back. He just pushed things too far, and made himself conspicuous. It’s like the difference between a local drug dealer who avoids arrest by keeping his enterprise small, selling only to a trusted circle of clients, and the big-time smuggler who drives flashy sports cars and, predictably, finds himself forced to defend his empire by murdering rivals or suspected snitches.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” to quote Inspector Harry Callahan, and it’s obvious that Joe Exotic didn’t recognize any limits.

Joe Exotic was crazy, and Crazy People Are Dangerous.



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