I’m a big animal rights supporter and have been since I turned 20. Before then, I did not care for animals at all and it was when my family took a little Yorkshire Terrier into our home that my life changed. Little Chloe became my hero because she awoke a whole new level of empathy, which entails a respect for animals and the environment.
Naturally, when I heard about Tiger King, I knew I had to see it – though I feared for the worst. Those fears were intensified by claims by animal rights organisations that the film underplayed the animal abuse side of the story about big cat trafficking.
The series is directed by Rebecca Chaikin and Eric Good for Netflix, and is seven near hour-long episodes long. I think the length is excessive, despite the wealth of material. But the claims of animal rights organizations that the animal abuse side of the story is treated lightly are wrong, in my opinion.
From start to finish, we are exposed to the eccentric characters that populate this world and while they are admittedly entertaining, they are far from likeable. Or, to put it in another way, they are as likeable as Charles Manson was a good songwriter and Bill Cosby was a funny man.
Sure, the true crime side of the story drives the narratives, as well as the central feud between Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin. But images of lions, tigers and other wild animals in cages, mistreated and used as objects are right there in front of us.
PETA and other animal rights organizations too have their dark sides but they do a heck of a job raising awareness of animal welfare, some of which are so complicated that it is hard for most people to even understand them. That is what makes some of their policies and actions so damn controversial.
But I really question the ways in which most of these organizations communicate their goals and missions to the wider public. One of the ways in which they try to do that is by producing documentaries. I have seen these documentaries and they are rarely effective. Their tone is propagandistic and I struggle to believe that they can win people over with their aggressive or pontificating (or both) tones.
Furthermore, I am a believer in the theories of Walter Benjamin, who claimed among other things that only shock can cause moments of awakening, and these moments can only occur when the spectator is distracted. This is a theory commonly referred to as “reception in distraction.”
To put it simply, the eccentricity of the protagonist of Tiger King and the absorbing crime narrative – together with the feeling that you are watching a movie rather than a traditional documentary via stylistic choices – hypnotise the viewers. But it is the pitiful shots of objectified wild animals that offer the opportunity to provide the spectator with those shocking moments that Benjamin referred to.
These moments are far more effective, I believe, than indoctrination. When I was a kid, I hated going to school. I was a good student but I did not like having to learn things that I was told to. I suspect that most people also don’t like to do what they are told, or think what they are told to think.
Had the makers of Tiger King made the animal abuse side of the story clearer, it would only have pleased those who are passionate about shining a light on these topics already. However, it would have been far less effective in winning people over and making them understand that wild animal markets are awful.
Another thing worth mentioning is that people don’t necessarily know why breeding is a dangerous and criminal act. This is possibly the first major film production to proliferate this information successfully. On top of that, we are also exposed to other things, including zoo owners who raise cubs to take photos with people and are killed once they grow older.
We also learn how easily ideals are thwarted for the sake of power, hunger and lust. Joe Exotic apparently sells his soul to the devil, turning his back on his past self and the mission that he had set himself for the preservation of big cats. But in the end, he gets what he deserves: a sentence to spend the rest of his life in a cage, like the wild animals of his zoo.