It all comes down to perfect timing. While Netflix had no way of knowing we would all be forced into quarantine when they dropped Tiger King, they ended up providing the world with the perfect form of escapist entertainment. There is a reason Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness has been the number one show on Netflix since it came out. All I can say is wow…just wow.
The docuseries follows the truly wild story of Joe Exotic, a flamboyant, gun-toting, so-called zookeeper of nearly 200 tigers and his rivalry with animal activist Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Some other notable characters include Jeff Lowe, who was arrested for sneaking tiger cubs into Las Vegas casinos, and “Doc” Antle, a doctor of mystical science who operates Myrtle Beach Safari. The show covers everything from animal abuse to missing limbs, country music diss tracks, a presidential campaign, and a whole lot of crazy outfits.
Right now it is easy to just escape into this type of outrageous entertainment that everyone seems to be talking about. Social media has been overwhelmed with posts about which celebrities should be cast as Joe Exotic in an HBO series and countless memes of Carole feeding her husband to a tiger but, hidden among all the craziness, lies a much more sinister issue. While watching the show, I started to notice some signs that seemed familiar. It seemed to me that Joe Exotic and Doc Antle’s actions in the series often reflected strategies commonly used by human traffickers.
No matter what else you may or may not believe about Joe Exotic and “Doc” Antle’s zoos, each owner has engaged in exploitative labor practices. In the second episode, Joe Exotic admits to exploiting vulnerable populations when he explains his preference for hiring people straight out of prison because, “if it’s all they have, and it’s decent, they’ll work hard enough to keep it.” Additionally, Joe utilizes staff to notify him when individuals in the community appear to be homeless or drug addicted so that he can prey on them. Traffickers often target similar populations and exploit vulnerabilities such as housing insecurity, job insecurity, and drug addiction, promising that things will be better. In reality, Joe’s workplace is far from “decent;” employees are made to live in pest-infested trailers with no running water and are left to eat expired meat donated by Walmart for the tigers.
While Joe refers to “Doc” Antle’s zoo in Myrtle Beach as being “a little more upscale” and Doc’s zoo certainly appears more professional than Joe Exotic’s, the business practices are still far from acceptable. One former employee describes what she thought working at Myrtle Beach Safari would be like, “When I read what it was like there, it sounded like a utopia…They talked about how everyone was vegetarian and how they used, like, principles of yoga to train animals.” She later goes on to describe the reality of working there; “You know we lived in these terrible horse stalls basically. Like with sliding doors with bars on them. It was full of cockroaches. I mean like everywhere.” It seems like “Doc” is using a common tactic known as “bait and switch” in which a trafficker promises one type of work, but the reality turns out to be much different. By the time the true conditions are known, victims feel trapped and as if they have no other option.
Throughout the show, there are also signs that both Joe Exotic and “Doc” Antle are utilizing manipulation tactics to sexually exploit young men and women. Joe’s ex-husband, John, describes being “showered with gifts and stuff. He bought me a truck. Actually, he bought me like four or five different trucks.” Unfortunately, Joe’s other husband, Travis, died before the filming of the docuseries. While there are no quotes from Travis himself, Joe’s former campaign manager recalls how Joe capitalized on Travis’ drug addiction:
“There are people out there. They will look at a person who is in desperate, dire need of something. In Travis’ case, he was addicted to meth. And they take that need and they fulfill it until they become the only person that can fulfill that need. And in exchange, that person gives them whatever sexual or any other favors they want. That was the relationship Joe had with Travis.”
When I first heard this quote, I was shocked by its similarity to the definition of a “booster pimp” used in our Human Trafficking 101 trainings, “a pimp that creates or utilizes a previous drug addiction to control victim.” While Joe Exotic may not have been trafficking Travis, it certainly seems that he was exploiting his addiction for his own sexual gain. For many, Tiger King is a fun and engaging way to escape the monotony of quarantine and while there is nothing wrong with watching it, we should be sure to recognize the signs of Human Trafficking when they are right in front of us. While it might be easy to let these details take a backseat to the over the top, sensational drama presented in the show, we can not and should not ignore the fact that real people are facing real abuse and exploitation at the hands of these charismatic and manipulative characters.
If Tiger King entertained you, inspired you, disgusted you, or opened your eyes to exploitation and abuse that many victims face every day, please consider supporting FAIR Girls. Our mission is to end human trafficking, one life at a time. By visiting us at www.fairgirls.org, you can subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on social media or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We share real opportunities to be part of the solution. We strive to make a positive impact in the lives of human trafficking survivors.
If you or someone you know is a victim of Human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888)-373-7888 or the FAIR Girls crisis line at (855)-900-3247.