Among the countless effects of the coronavirus is the nationwide fixation on Tiger King, a NetFlix series about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, the former owner of a wildlife park in Oklahoma currently in prison.
The show debuted in mid-March and has become a binge item for people sheltering in place. It's described as a docu-series about a "zoo owner who spirals out of control amid a cast of eccentric characters in this true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding."
The target of Joe Exotic's murder-for-hire plot is Carole Baskin, an animal activist who runs a sanctuary in Florida dedicated to big cats. A 2019 feature in New York magazine helps clarify the difference between the two: Joe's facility breeds animals while Baskin's does not. Breeding is a telltale sign of a bad animal facility.
Unfortunately, Tiger King flubs a big opportunity to educate the public, says Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney who specializes in animal law, and who helped start the fire that sent Joe Exotic to prison.
From 2004-2008, Nasser was an attorney in Dallas, first at a firm, and then as an assistant city attorney for Dallas specializing in enforcing housing standards. She left to work for organizations such as PETA and Animal Legal Defense Fund.
"I think there's more educational value in the TLC show 90 Day Fiance than Tiger King, just to learn something about immigration laws," Nasser says, joking. "Tiger King does not serve the art of film or offer any educational purpose. I'm still struggling to figure out what purpose it serves. It is obviously done by somebody who doesn't have any interest in making a meaningful contribution to the conversation or to the protection of tigers in America."
Nasser found a window of opportunity to help end Joe Exotic's exploitation of big cats while working on the case of Tony the Tiger, an unfortunate creature who was confined to a cage at a Louisiana gas station for all 17 years of his life before he was euthanized in 2017. Countless animal advocates worked for years to get him moved to a sanctuary.
Joe Exotic went to Louisiana to lobby for a bill that would allow Tony's owner to keep the tiger, despite a law against ownership of dangerous wild animals. Later that year, Joe would return to Louisiana to bring numerous big cats back to Oklahoma. Nasser used open records laws to obtain transfer records and noticed discrepancies.
"Joe was sloppy," Nasser says. "He loves the attention but he's not known for dotting his i's and crossing his t's. I thought, if Al Capone can go down for tax evasion, then maybe sloppy paperwork can be the downfall of Joe."
The problem with facilities like the one Joe Exotic owned is that they breed tigers so that the public can interact with the tigers while they're still young and docile. But that docile period lasts only a few months. Once the tigers are too big to be controlled, they're invariably trapped in cages for the rest of their lives.
"Tiger King is focused on the quirkiness of all the characters — the polyamorous relationships, the drug use, the music videos — it's the low-hanging fruit rather than on critical issues relating to abuse of animals and this whole breed-and-dump cycle that has created a tiger crisis in America," she says. "It really misses the mark in delivering a message that could influence people to care about what type of facilities they visit with their families."
Nasser is not Joe Exotic's only Dallas connection. A Texas Monthly feature in 2019 details his childhood days in Pilot Point, his brief job as police chief in Eastvale, and the pet store he owned in Arlington with his brother, before he went on to open his zoo in Oklahoma.
Filmmaker Eric Goode has reportedly said he wanted to create a Blackfish-like series for tigers, but Tiger King has almost no expert input, other than brief interviews with Britney Peet, director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at the PETA Foundation, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Green, who skillfully prosecuted Joe Exotic while on trial.
"Sadly this is not even close — this is a reality show, and Americans love reality shows," Nasser says. "A true documentary serves both as education and art, and this does neither."