Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

“Welcome to the Jungle”

Kate Fortmueller (University of Georgia)

On March 20, 2020, Netflix released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness several days after the US began to experience its own mayhem. As the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and people across the country began to shelter in place, we became perhaps uniquely succeptible to viral television programming. Tiger King became a huge hit for Netflix, reportedly garnering more US viewers than Stranger Things 2, lingering in their top 10 shows around the world, and potentially spawning a Ryan Murphy scripted adaptation. This was not the first time the Joe Exotic story had been told – there were two 2019 stories about the Tiger King, one in New York Magazine and a podcast simply titled “Joe Exotic” – and, based on footage in Tiger King, Joe Exotic has seemingly been a long-time staple of local Oklahoma news. This iteration of Joe Exotic’s story explores his tiger kingdom and the larger world of big cat exhibitors across the US.

Tiger King is anchored by many big personalities of the big cat world, including Carole Baskin, Doc Antle, and Jeff Lowes. Each one of these figures could make a compelling subject, but Joe Schrebvogel-Maldonado-Passage aka “The Tiger King” aka “Joe Exotic” (as I will refer to him henceforth) is the center of the show. Joe Exotic is a P.T. Barnum-like figure of late capitalism, a showman and entrepreneur with more tools for promotion than Barnum could ever have imagined at his disposal. G.W. Zoo (named for Joe Exotic’s deceased husband, Garold Wayne) provided the basis for his own small empire. In addition to his zoo, he releases music videos, runs his own TV station, designs branded merchandise (including an underwear line), joined the crowded field of 2016 Republican Presidential candidates, and would later run for Governor of Oklahoma. Every aspect of his business seems aimed at subverting cultural norms, from his garish merchandise to his anti-government platform. The documentary filmmakers embrace this aspect of Joe Exotic, showing the many ways that he seems to cultivate a carnivalesque environment in Wynnewood, OK.

As derived from literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, the “carnivalesque” describes a literary mode that, like a carnival itself, upends cultural hierarchies and norms. This term seems uniquely well-suited to describe the various worlds of private zoos (not just G.W. Zoo) in Tiger King. These zoos and the various big cat aficionados who run them adopt a kind of loose libertarian-ethos, violating a number of laws and shirking societal norms. To varying degrees these big cat exhibitors have created their own moral universes. Both Joe Exotic and Doc Antle maintain long-term polygamous relationships with people who came to work with them as teenagers. In the Bahktinian sense, carnivalesque behaviors are worthy of note because they are unique to a fixed period of time and a uniquely festive space. The carnival offers space to transgress rule and order because it is temporary, yet in the social environments of Tiger King, working with big cats and maintaining these zoos, Doc Antle explains, “is a lifestyle.”

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The culture of these zoos appears subversive on the surface, but when a carnivalesque culture becomes permanent it simply becomes another system of rules and control. G.W. Zoo is one of many private zoos and big cat exhibitors that operate on the margins, functioning as permanent tourist attractions outside of places like Tampa, FL, Myrtle Beach, NC, and Wynnewood, OK. Episode 2 features a map pinpointing the locations of all the big cat owners and exhibitors around the US, showing that they are far from major cities, which keeps them distant from outside regulatory influences. The zoos are also large compounds that can be built and reconfigured based on the desires of the exhibitors. The exhibitors featured in the series run their zoos like miniature kingdoms, wielding power over the lives and livelihoods of the workers. Joe Exotic’s husband Travis Maldonado complained of feeling trapped on the compound and eventually committed suicide. Several of the employees at G.W. Zoo sustained serious injuries and lost limbs as a result of their work. Despite the real dangers of this work, the workers receive minimal compensation. Joe Exotic’s workers are so poorly compensated that they pick through the trucks of expired Walmart meat, undesirable meat intended for the tigers. Workers at Doc Antle’s zoo are paid $100 per week, and Carole Baskin proudly announces that she doesn’t pay people to work with animals because it is work people will do for free. These zoos are on the margins of cities, but their reliance on the “perks” of the job to justify low to no-pay resonates with the logic of the glamorous entertainment industry and neoliberal capitalism more generally.

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The carnivalesque, like our current state of quarantine, is a temporary state. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the carnival as “…not a spectacle seen by the people; […] its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.” As we shelter in place around the US we also experience a weird kind of subversion of norms of work, time, and social interaction; we are all inside a kind of joyless carnival, or perhaps the tiger kingdom. For millions of people, Tiger King has been a part of quarantine, whether they watched the show, experienced the narrative through memes, boosted its popularity through one of many social media conversations, or took a Tiger King-themed virtual workout. If there is a silver-lining to our collective time inside the tiger kingdom, it is that it will end – like the show itself, this quarantine is a limited series. Yet the work arrangements that barely sustain the tigers, underpaid workers, and unpaid interns working in these zoos will linger unless we can use this unusual moment to reflect on our work and economic conditions that seem shocking on the surface, but have become our status quo.

“On Tiger King and the Law”

Tiger King and Corpus Delicti: How to Get Away With Murder….Or Not
Maybell Romero (Northern Illinois University)

On news sites, pop culture blogs, podcasts, and more, there’s been a great deal of discussion of a B plot from the Netflix documentary series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, that has taken on a life of its own—the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s first husband, Don Lewis. Don disappeared in August of 1997 after 8 years of marriage and the launch of their wildlife sanctuary in Florida. Many of the people profiled in the documentary were resolute in their belief that Carole murdered Don, offering multiple theories as to how she disposed of his body in an effort to avoid prosecution.

Both in the documentary and in opinions shared online, I’ve noted an interesting misunderstanding of the criminal law as well as the quantum of evidence necessary to move forward with a murder prosecution in most, if not all, of the United States. I’m not taking a position on whether Carole Baskin murdered her first husband or not. I am, however, of the opinion after watching the documentary and reading coverage of Tiger King that most Americans misunderstand what’s known in criminal law as corpus delicti.

The term “corpus delicti” refers to the very general principle that a prosecutor must prove that a crime actually happened before anyone can be convicted of committing the crime itself. A prosecutor cannot attempt to gain a conviction of a suspect for murder before proving that a murder actually occurred. In proving that a murder occurred, the prosecutor, at least in the United States, would have to prove each of the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Using a common law definition of murder, a prosecutor would need to show that there was 1) an unlawful killing of 2) another human being with 3) malice aforethought.

Corpus delicti translates from Latin, literally, to “body of the crime.” This literal translation has seemed to lead to confusion regarding the concept of corpus delicti, not only by those currently theorizing about Don Lewis’s disappearance, but even by convicted murderers themselves.

In the popular imagination, this requirement has morphed into one requiring a corpse be discovered for the successful prosecution of murder to take place. John Haigh, the British serial killer also known as the Acid Bath Murderer, fell sway to this misunderstanding. Dissolving his victims in 40-gallon drums of concentrated sulphuric acid rendering their bodies sludge, Haigh believed that he would avert prosecution, even though the government had enough forensic evidence to convict him. Haigh was captured, tried, convicted, and executed in 1949. While it was often impossible to prosecute a murder case without a body prior to the advent of reliable forensic science, such advances have made it possible for the state to gain convictions even without the discovery of a corpse.

Now what exactly does this mean for Carole Baskin and the G.W. Zoo crew? Perhaps not much practically at this point. For those reading this out there, however, rest assured and know—getting away with murder is much more difficult than it used to be. A body is not necessarily required.

All’s Fair in a Grudge Match
Brian Frye (University of Kentucky)

For better or worse, the paradigmatic television show of the coronavirus pandemic is Netflix’s documentary series Tiger King, an excruciatingly intimate reflection on the feud between two tiger-fanciers. On the one side is Carole Baskin, the rather sanctimonious leader of Big Cat Rescue, a big cat sanctuary in Florida. And on the other is Joe Exotic, the “colorful” operator of a glorified circus and petting zoo based in Oklahoma.

By the by, Exotic was convicted of trying to murder Baskin and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. How did Exotic come to such an ignominious end? Well, the proximate cause was a trio of intellectual property infringement actions that Baskin filed against Exotic and his organizations. Exotic eventually settled for about $1 million. And when he failed to pay, he was essentially forced out of his zoo. Nursing a deep grudge, he made frequent threats against Baskin, and eventually offered to pay a hitman to kill her.

Tiger King largely ignores the details of the infringement actions. But they are interesting, because they illustrate how people can repurpose intellectual property rights to serve their own goals. Baskin sued Exotic for both trademark and copyright infringement. While her trademark claims were at least plausible, her copyright claims were not. Yes, Exotic used copyrighted photos and videos of Baskin and her employees, including a video of them feeding rabbits to tigers. But it was a non-infringing “fair use.”

The fair use doctrine provides that using a copyrighted image for the purpose of commentary or criticism is not copyright infringement. One of the primary purposes of the fair use doctrine is to ensure that copyright owners don’t abuse copyright by using it to silence their critics. In other words, fair use is a kind of copyright “escape valve” to protect free speech.

While Exotic’s use of Baskin’s photos and videos was crass, misleading, and mean-spirited, it was also core free speech. After all, he used them precisely in order to criticize Baskin and Big Cat Rescue. Indeed, he used them in order to respond to allegations Baskin made about him. That is precisely the kind of speech the fair use doctrine was created in order to protect. And more to the point, it is precisely the kind of speech that copyright is supposed to ignore. After all, copyright is all about ensuring authors can benefit from the economic value of the works they create. Baskin didn’t care about the economic value of the photos and videos Exotic used. She just wanted to make him shut up. Understandably! But that isn’t and shouldn’t be a legitimate or enforceable copyright claim.

Unfortunately, the court ignored Exotic’s fair use defense, holding that it was a question of fact for the jury. It was wrong. Judges can and should decide questions of fair use, especially easy ones. And they don’t get much easier.

Regardless, Exotic was done. When the court rejected his defenses, he settled. In other words, no one ever decided whether he infringed Baskin’s trademark or copyright claims. He just gave up and agreed to pay.

I find that troubling. Not because Exotic was in the right or because Baskin was in the wrong, but because making people shut up isn’t the purpose of intellectual property law. Understandably, Baskin used the tools at her disposal to get what she wanted. And boy was she ever successful, even if she never actually collected much money. But is that justice, or an indictment of our intellectual property laws?

We should expect intellectual property disputes to be decided on the merits, and not to be leveraged in unrelated feuds. Maybe, just maybe, courts could do a little more to de-escalate interpersonal conflicts, rather than fanning the flames. This should never have been an intellectual property dispute in the first place. It had nothing to do with intellectual property, and everything to do with ideology and personal animosity.


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