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Tiger King: An Unconventional Story of Murder, Mayhem, and Madness

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    “Hey all you cool cats and kittens!” is an ominous phrase most quarantined United States citizens have heard by now. The documentary series titled Tiger King has graced the screens across America on the streaming service Netflix. Whether it be a first-hand viewing of the limited series or an exposure to memes on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the images and topic of Tiger King could not be avoided. This phenomenon that has everyone talking is an original series by the platform Netflix which focuses on the private ownership of big cats and the underground workings that are behind profiting on these animals. Touching on a plethora of topics such as drug use, animal rights, politics, shady business deals, and the conviction of a murder for hire plot. By implementing dramatism, terministic screens, and the rise in of visual culture, the rhetor not only exposes the personal wrongdoings of the main people in relation to their big cat facilities but aims to question the audiences’ perception of what is morally correct when dealing with endangered species and animal rights.

    The series includes overarching egos, the power of money, suspicsious motives, and crime. It can best be put as “Tiger King is a portrait of a world that’s entirely alien, and yet also reflective, and diagnostic, of this country as a whole. It’s funny, and creepy, and frustrating, and, in the longview, pretty sad. Which feels just about exactly right at this particular juncture in our national experiment” (Lawson, 2020). The docuseries is primarily focused on Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage or as the persona of Joe Exotic as he is more well known as. The characterization or labels and descriptions attached to Joe’s acts and scenes only became more apparent in the public eye. There are many other colorful characters intertwined in the seven-part (which now includes a bonus episode) exposé of the secret society in the big cat world. This series falls into several genres, according to details tab on Netflix, such as true crime docuseries and LGBTQ docuseries as well.

    The audience is mainly the American public but more specifically the large percentage of Americans that visit animal sanctuaries like the ones discussed in the docuseries. The main contributors to this animal kingdom are families. The rhetor in this case is appealing to ticket buyers which most likely would be 30 plus parental figures funding these places. What was once perceived to be a fun family outing has now had the veil pulled to reveal the false promises of a sanctuary for anyone and anything involved. This show seeks to appeal to the audience by heavily utilizing pathos by placing vivid imagery of the dangerous of privately owning big cats, using expressive descriptions of the situations at hand, and most notably the personal stories of the employees working at these facilities.

    How far is too far? What are the real intentions behind the action of the handlers? The rhetor lays out all the gathered evidence from all parties which in the end reveals that there is no clear protagonist. The largest enemy of main man Joe Exotic would have to be none other than Carole Baskin. Baskin owns and operates Big Cat Rescue in Orlando, FL and is an active advocate for animal rights and aims to end the trade/sale of big cats. Carole Baskin’s main objective from the start is to discredit private zoo owners and prevent them from profiting on cub petting. Cub petting is the act of exploiting a baby tiger (or other big cat) in a public setting for photographs, holding and petting of the animal while charging a fee of course. Baskin calls out not only Joe Exotic but another big fish in the game who goes by the name of Doc Antle. Antle, who owns a wildlife preserve in Myrtle Beach, SC, works with commercialized animals and is noted to be more of a tourist attraction than anything. Along with a 50-acre wildlife property, the docuseries delves deeper than what just appears from the surface for all the subjects because that truly makes an impact on the greater picture. Antle is called out by Netflix for not only underpaying his all-female staff but also possibly coercing them into a Hindu inspired cult all at his zoo. The staff work, live, and love at The Institute for the Greatly Endangered and Rare Species which begs the audience to question what they are funding when attending places like this.

    A main rhetorical issue utilized in this material is that of dramatism. While it may seem quite simple the term coined by Kenneth Burke can be described as “an idea that is premised on two interlocking assumptions: (1) language is primarily a species of action… rather than an instrument of definition and (2) the best way to understand human relations and motives through an analysis of symbolic action” (Palczewski, Ice, & Fritch, 2012, p. 38). The subject matter is drowning in dramatism. Both of these interlocking components may not be even seen by the common naked eye, until now. The language surrounding big cats is underestimating the ferocity that they truly are when they grow to hundreds of pounds. The big cat handlers use language as a species of action to capitalize on baby tigers, showing them off to young crowds and marketing them as furry creatures the handlers are trying to protect. This meaning that the by Netflix showcasing the schemes of these handlers that are actually going on, the rhetor helps the viewers understand these human relations and motives with videos footage, symbolic actions, of these handlers’ mistreatment. The big cat “advocates” are using their language to induce cooperation of the public to fund their “sanctuaries” while simultaneously shaping social reality.

    Along the same route, the terministic screen coincides with this industry as the famous popularized these exotic animals and deemed them as symbol of wealth. According to Rhetoric and Civic Life, Burke describes a terministic screen as “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others” (Palczewski, Ice, & Fritch, 2012, p. 39). As Hollywood celebs post pictures of themselves with these creatures, they become another possession the middle-class American will grow to covet. In this way, there is a reflection of reality, but it is only a selection of the cute small baby tiger and serves as a deflection of the reality that the tiger is not meant to be a house or pet and will in fact, eat the owner themselves. This has become a shocking problem in America today. The facts are simple, there are about 3,890 tigers in the wild today but there are around 5,000 tigers in captivity. According to World Wildlife, “A vast majority of these captive tigers are privately owned and living in people’s backyards, roadside attractions, and private breeding facilities.” This point was driven home by Netflix touching on this subject by providing news coverage of an incident in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011, where the Muskingum County Animal Farm owner released 50 of his animals which consisted of 18 Bengal tigers, 17 African lions, eight bears, three cougars, two wolves and two monkeys which could not be contained without risk of civilian injury. Of the released animals, 48 were killed by police and many people called into question the poor laws surrounding this ownership (Rajagopalan, Ed, Lynn, Playboy Carti, & Rjb, 2020).

    Along with this, it is well established that “roadside zoos” boast about what difference their location is making in the conservation with flashy signage but simply do this to draw in uniformed crowds. The laws and regulations in the U.S. for exotic wildlife are murky in that these schemes have been going on for the past decade. According to The Conservation Value of Tigers: Separating Science from Fiction, “Non-accredited zoos rarely participate in these coordinated breeding programs, have less oversight and lower standards related to animal care, usually know little or nothing about where their tigers come from” (Nyhus & Tilson, 2009). This is quite apparent in many scenes where Joe Exotic purchased expired meat from Walmart to feed his animals. Another power testimony by a former worker of Exotic told about how a donated horse was shot and killed to feed the ravenous animals.

    These rhetorical acts were responding to the growing mass of people who yearned to encounter a big cat and growing egos of those who were in charge of them. During the five-year filming period of this series, the escalation of the characterization of Joe Exotic only increased. There are many elements that built up in the feud between these two foes; Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic. Baskin wanted Exotic to halt his breeding of big cats and went to great lengths to do so by calling out her online fanbase to write and email thousands of letters to venues that were hosting him. While Exotic viewed Baskin as a hypocrite for basically profiting off her sanctuary of exotic animal he retaliated by posting videos borating her, revealing private information, and questioning if she had killed her first husband. While personal tragedies and drama occurred behind the scenes, the mullet-man was changing his tune of big cat advocacy to a selfish gain in running for president in 2015 and Oklahoma governor in 2018 (Gajanan, 2020).

    While losing sight of the once main goal of protection of the animals, Joe Exotic is hit with a plague of legal action from none other than Carole Baskin for chaning the name of his zoo to mock Baskin. Baskin then sued Exotic for one-million-dollar trademark infringement case which she ended up winning. Joe Exotic not only lost his zoo but also his parents house. During this short frantic period of time he enlists the help of a possible conman, Jeff Lowe which did not help matter very much. Then in 2017, Travis Maldonado, Joe’s husband fatally shot himself leaving Joe financial and emotional stressed. Joe Exotic turned his pain into rage by concoking a plan to pay an employee to kill Baskin. However, this plan was unsuccessful and resulted in a 22-year prison sentence. In 2019, Joe Exotic was found guilty of 2 counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

    This material is spectacularly unique in the fact that there are really no heroes or protagonists and the viewers are questioning not only the validity of the park’s owners but of larger animal rights advocates as well. While this project was branded at first to be a similar rendition of Black Fish, a smash-hit documentary that exposed the exploitation to large aquatic animals (mainly killer whales) and hidden horrors of the popular park Sea World, the focus seemed to shift into a raunchy entangled mess of deception. This series released on March 20, 2020 took the nation by storm and landed itself 34.3 million viewers watching the series in the first ten days of publication. According to Variety, “The docuseries reached a U.S. TV audience of 34.3 unique viewers within the first 10 days of its release (March 20-29)” (Spangler, 2020). The success can be attributed to the rise of visual culture. Visual culture can be described as “a culture distinguished by the ubiquity of visual forms of communication that appear in multiple media outlets at the same time (such as television, the Internet, cell phones, and magazines” (Palczewski, Ice, & Fritch, 2012, p. 63). Just as quickly as people watched the series, it was trending on applications like Twitter and Facebook as well as on the front cover of many magazines. Tiger King reignited meme culture across all platforms even whether or not a person had seen the show, they defiantly heard of it. “Traditionally, word of mouth and social interaction play critical roles in boosting the viewership of experience goods, such as television programs and films,” which is meaning that the joking tone allowed the door to be opened for more curiosity to grow by other users of these sites (Jiyoung Cha, 2016). Though this Netflix series was way more than entertainment alone but by applying visual rhetoric in signifying a practice through which human beings make meaning and make sense of the world.

    Overall, the series Tiger King is undoubtably a hit in pop culture. While the circumstances surrounding Covid-19 might have played a factor in the ability for mass audiences to watch, it does not take away from the oozing entertainment value. This series by tackles great issues while also promoting the platform in subscription numbers and establishing Netflix’s capability to produce substantial original content. Through the embedded rhetorical strategies and elements like dramatism, terministic screens, characterizations, symbolic action, and visual culture the rhetor was able to inform the people of the double life of these establishments but also follow a man who succumbed to his madness. The American people will now be able to recognize the importance of spending their money in certain industries rather than others and beg them to peel back the layers of outspoken organizations.


    1. Cha, J. (2016). View of Television use in the 21st century: An exploration of television and social television use in a multiplatform environment: First Monday. Retrieved from
    2. Gajanan, M. (2020, March 24). The Wild Story Behind the Netflix Docuseries ‘Tiger King’. Retrieved from
    3. Henry, L. (2020, March 31). 5 things Tiger King doesn’t explain about captive tigers. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from
    4. Lawson, R. (2020, March 19). Netflix’s Riveting Tiger King Is a Perfect Social-Distance Binge. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from
    5. Nyhus, Philip J. and Tilson, Ron L., ‘The Conservation Value of Tigers: Separating Science from Fiction’ (2009). Faculty Scholarship. 51.
    6. Palczewski, C. H., Ice, R., & Fritch, J. (2016). Rhetoric in civic life. State College, PA: Strata Pub.
    7. Rajagopalan, R., Ed, Lynn, Playboy Carti, & Rjb. (2020, April 14). Ohio’s gruesome ‘Tiger King’ connection. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from
    8. Spangler, T. (2020, April 8). ‘Tiger King’ Nabbed Over 34 Million U.S. Viewers in First 10 Days, Nielsen Says (EXCLUSIVE). Retrieved from

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