Netflix dropped its latest documentary Tiger King on Friday, and quickly blew up on social media, with viewers classifying it as "bats— crazy," and "bizarre." The filmmakers behind the project, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, aren't the least bit surprised.
The six episodes center on the seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade in the United States and its colorful cast of characters within in. At the top of that list is Joe Exotic, an eccentric, openly gay, collector of wild cats who is currently serving time in federal prison for the attempted murder of his nemesis Carole Baskin.
Viewers are introduced to others who, like Exotic, hoard exotic animals to varying degrees of abuse and neglect and the role each plays in the unraveling of the tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The people introduced in this documentary are convinced they love these exotic animals while keeping them cramped up in cages. This seems to be more about ego and power, do you agree?
ERIC GOODE: This is not about someone's love of animals, it's about status. It's complicated, it's about a lot of things, it's about status, it's about collecting the rarest of the rare, it's about image, it's about money, it's about a lot of things and it's complicated. If someone really loved these animals, they wouldn't have a collection.
But in this case people have hundreds and hundreds of animals, they have a menagerie. You can't possibly love that many animals. So, it's more about the ego and the pride of having all of these things sort of like a car collection or a gun collection. So, it transcends the love of any one animal. Now, they may have favorites but there's a lot of anthropomorphizing going on.
These people like to think that their animals love them, and they love them back. But of course, they're reading into that and really what's happening here is great suffering and abuse of these animals. It's one thing if someone has a dog or a cat and you really love it, or maybe two dogs. But people that have 1000 dogs, it's a different pathology and that's what's happening here these people have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of animals.
And in the documentary, they seem to struggle financially with keeping them all fed.
GOODE: Well it depends, it’s a case by case to be fair. Some of these operations make a lot of money, some don't and there's everything in between so it all depends. In Joe's case, he really struggled to feed 225 tigers. And I can only think of what's happening right now at Joe's old zoo under the management of Jeff Lowe. I'm sure that due to the coronavirus, no one's going. I suspect he's at a point where he's probably got to put down animals, left to right, just to be able to feed the ones that he can't.
REBECCA CHAIKLIN: It takes a tremendous amount of work to care for that many animals, especially wild animals in captivity. The people believe, and in their own skewed way, feel as though they love their animals. For some, it's like being in an abusive relationship. Like, they would tell you they love their animals and they love this way of life and it's the only way of life they know and that's why they work so hard at it. So, it's nuanced on some level, even though it's quite cruel to most of the animals, they believe they love them.
So you do keep in touch with Lowe. How are the animals doing?
Goode: I got a very long text today from Jeff Lowes, who is running Joe’s old zoo. All I can tell you is that he is basically operating on fumes. No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that's been going on for a long time. It's not something that has just happened because of what's happening in the world today.
But I think that it's very sad what’s happening to these animals. And it's anyone's guess as to what's going to happen to them. Some will be placed but I would suspect a lot of them will die from starvation, and probably be put down. And this is probably true for a lot of operations around the country right now that keep exotic animals, and even big zoos are struggling right now to keep their animals.
Have you spoken to Joe since he went to jail?
CHAIKLIN: Eric and I keep in touch with him and he has now been in prison for a year and a half, going on like a year and nine months or something. He has a really different perspective on what it means to be in a cage and really has done a lot of thinking about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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