tiger king
'Tiger King' | Netflix
'Tiger King' | Netflix
Entertainment

The Craziest Moments From Netflix's New Docuseries 'Tiger King'

Seemingly every few months, Netflix drops another stranger-than-fiction, extremely bingeable true-crime docuseries, with each one crazier than the last. They've explored notorious serial killers like Ted Bundy, dipped into cults with Wild, Wild Country, and brought lesser-known cases, like that of Evil Genius and The Keepers, into the spotlight. But the streamer's March 2020 release, Tiger King: Mayhem, Murder, and Madness, from Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, might actually be the craziest one yet.

In the first few minutes, Goode narrates over footage he took of stumbling across a caged snow leopard in the back of a van in 100-degree heat, which sets him and Chaiklin on a five-year journey into the big cat world. Focusing on Oklahoma's one and only Joe Exotic, who, until very recently, was in charge of the self-proclaimed largest private zoo in the country, the series picks and pulls at the loose threads of Joe's strange underground world. Most people might recognize Joe from his strange, viral campaign for president during the 2016 election, but the series goes much deeper than that, diving into Joe's network of friends and their work-for-hire cults, his husbands and their darkness, and political foes, eventually leading to the attempt at orchestrating the murder of his rival, animal "sanctuary" owner Carole Baskin in Florida.

If you think that's all Tiger King has to offer, think again. Joe putting a hit out on a nemesis half the country away is hardly the most mind-boggling moment of the series. Like The Staircase, the mid-2000s true-crime series that Netflix bought the rights to and helped rework to include brand-new material, each of Tiger King's seven episodes gets increasingly more bizarre, turning what at first seems like a profile on a kooky big cat guy into deranged and depressing insight on many of the eccentrics who populate the shady world of exotic zoos in the United States. It's more insane than you even know.

Joe Exotic's music videos

One of the most fascinatingly weird elements of Tiger King is the liberal use of Joe Exotic's low-budget, self-produced music videos and songs. You can watch all of them at JoeExoticTV, the YouTube channel where there's tons of odd content for you to get sucked up in, but the most upsetting is easily one of the videos featured in Tiger King: "Here, Kitty, Kitty," where Joe hires a Carole Baskin lookalike and gets her to feed what's supposed to be human flesh to tigers while the poorly made country song plays over it. (In other videos, Joe dresses up a blow-up doll of Carole, straps explosives to it, and shoots it with a large machine gun.) Very normal to have a mortal enemy that you antagonize over YouTube!

doc antle tiger king
Doc Antle | Netflix

Doc Antle's secret cult and animal abuse

Perhaps the downright creepiest person in Tiger King is Baghavan "Doc" Antle, another big cat zoo type who has formed nothing less than a cult around his establishment, hiring pretty women at distressingly young ages and grooming them to become zookeepers as much as he grooms them to become part of his ever-rotating harem. One of the episodes of the show features a long interview with a woman who left his zoo after years and years of working there, and the interview progresses as if they were talking to a cult escapee. 

But that's not all: Doc Antle's zoo, like Joe's, makes most of its money though charging people for close-up encounters with its animals -- specifically, the tiger cubs. But where do his cubs go when they've outgrown safe petting age, or they misbehave during a play session? Doc won't say, and it remains a mystery for everyone who doesn't suspect that what he's really doing is euthanizing the tigers that are no longer useful to him.

Everyone's polyamorous

Is there a community, outside of people who base their identities around being polyamorous, that's more polyamorous than exotic animal keepers? Seriously: Joe Exotic has two husbands at one point, neither of who seem to actually be gay; Doc Antle has an entire harem of women; and Jeff Lowe is one of the grossest people I've ever heard talk about sex, bragging about his orgies and sexist conquests. 

rick kirkham tiger king
Rick Kirkham | Netflix

The suspicious office fire that killed seven alligators

There are many incidents throughout this series where Joe Exotic's character is called into question, increasingly revealing how dangerous and unpredictable the man can be. One in particular, that takes up much of the fourth episode, is that his office and alligator den burnt down in a blazing fire, and people around him suspect that he or someone he hired started the fire. It may be hard to believe he would kill seven of his own alligators to protect himself, but the brunt of the fire affected the office where cowboy-hat-wearing producer with a heavy drawl Rick Kirkham, who was at the time shooting a reality show on the zoo owner, kept his equipment and reels upon reels of damaging, unfiltered footage of Joe at his zoo. While the fire was ruled to be arson, it's one of the many unsolved mysteries of Tiger King

Joe's husband Travis shoots himself in front of his campaign manager

Easily the most upsetting moment in a series that feels like it jumps from one upsetting moment to the next is when we see, captured via CCTV, the reaction of Joshua Dial, Joe's presidential and gubernatorial campaign manager, when Joe's second husband, Travis Maldonado, shoots himself in the head, possibly by accident. Dial sits in utter shock for a solid 20 seconds with his hands to his face after you hear the bang, and runs off to find help when he realizes that Travis isn't moving. It's crazy that this even footage exists.

carole baskin tiger king
Carole Baskin | Netflix

The rumors that Carole Baskin murdered her former husband & fed him to the tigers

In Tiger King, there is no clear villain and hero, perpetrator and victim. Carole Baskin, who Joe Exotic made out to be his nemesis, may seem like the obvious victim -- nearly assassinated and all -- but even she's not so innocent. She and her former husband, multi-millionaire Don Lewis, actually started their "animal sanctuary" by purchasing young cats at auction -- but what's even more cause for concern is that Lewis disappeared without a trace in 1997, and Baskin is rumored to have murdered him and fed his remains to her cats over ideological differences about how to run the sanctuary. While he was presumed dead in 2002 after five years missing with few leads, his ex-wife and daughters (plus Carole-haters like Joe Exotic) are convinced she did the deed, and they condemn the authorities for never looking for DNA evidence on Big Cat Rescue's meat grinder. Sure, it's possible Lewis set off to Costa Rica where he had business dealings and could open a tiger breeding facility with little-to-no regulatory oversight, but his disappearance remains unsolved (which is one of several instances that doesn't help paint Carole as the big cat savior she aims to be).

A GW Zoo employee got her arm torn off by a tiger and was... fine?

There's an art to the way that Tiger King reveals each more-batshit-than-the-last turn. The most memorable, gasp-inducing one, though, goes to when they revealed GW Zoo staffer Kelci Saffery's arm was bitten off by a tiger -- which you would think is pretty much the biggest nightmare of anyone who works with big cats. But apparently, not so much? Saffery is shown as a talking head on screen talking about Joe Exotic and the park multiple times before they even get to the incident, and when they do, the cameras pull back ever so slightly to show her amputated limb as if to say, "Yes, it was I who survived the tiger attack." Saffery apparently led the tiger to believe she was a toy by sticking her arm in a hole she wasn't supposed to, but she and Exotic both just sort of shrugged their shoulders at the whole thing instead of, you know, calling into question the conditions of the park. 

jeff lowe tiger king
Jeff Lowe | Netflix

Jeff Lowe's G.W. Zoo coup

Secretly the most insane character in this whole thing is Jeff Lowe, a latecomer to the series who immediately stakes his claim to a share of all the madness by describing his and his wife's swingers outings. Outfitted in bandana-to-toe Harley-Davidson accoutrement and an ill-fitting Oakley cap, Jeff and his wife Lauren took a bunch of Joe's tiger cubs to Las Vegas to, essentially, "get girls." "A little pussy gets you a lot of pussy," as Jeff says. Jeff's stake in the zoo began as an angel investment, but quickly progressed to co-ownership, and then sole ownership as Joe's hold on his zoo started to slip. It's implied that Joe never would have been so nuts to have tried to put a hit out on his nemesis Carole if Jeff hadn't goaded him into doing it. To top it all off, at the end of the series, as everything's wrapping up, Jeff pauses his "jokes" about his wife needing to get in shape after her pregnancy is over to triumphantly show the camera a photo of the hot nanny he had picked to take care of their new child: "If you're gonna bring in one, why bring in one that's not enjoyable to look at?" 

Joe Exotic's ex-husband's crazy teeth

One of Joe's ex-husbands, John Finlay, sports what seem to be Billy Bob novelty teeth but are actually his real choppers. Or at least they wereTMZ caught up with Finlay and he revealed that he now has a mouth full of dentures. He looks great! He's also apparently a bit irked that Tiger King doesn't include shot footage of him having his remaining teeth replaced last year.

tiger king
Joe Exotic | Netflix

Everyone's terrible fashion sense

If Tiger King had been a fictional drama instead of a documentary, I would have said that the costumes were way too on-the-nose. But, since this is reality, the outfits are worth mentioning. Jeff Lowe comes onto the scene dressed like any villain in an '80s car chase movie. Joe Exotic waffles between rodeo cowboy and Vegas showgirl, alternating pink western cuts with flowy, rainbow-sequined shirts, topped off with his exquisite bleached mullet. Carole Baskin tours her home closet, showing off her legions of animal-print shirts, pants, dresses, scarves, and shoes -- clothes that she really does wear every single day. All of this goes to show: big cat people are fucking nuts.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist. She's on Twitter at @mssadiebell.
Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor for Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.
Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.