Five days ago, a friend sent me an Instagram DM with little context but a lot of intrigue: “Have you seen Tiger King?”
I had not, nor had I heard of what now I now know is Netflix’s new limited documentary series about a group of people who, for brevity’s sake, “work” with a variety of big cats. Each episode of the true-crime saga provides more plot twists than a choose-your-own-adventure book. At the center of it all is Joe Maldonado-Passage, an Oklahoma tiger breeder who is currently serving 22 years in prison for attempting to carry out a murder-for-hire plot, as well as several violations of the federal Endangered Species Act. He is the same Joe Exotic who, in 2018, ran for governor of Oklahoma (he lost in the Libertarian primary).
I watched the first four episodes in one night and decided to pace the remaining three out over the course of the next few days, as a treat. But each time, I noticed that my cat, who is an average-sized domestic shorthair and has no known link to any kind of wild cat, would sit next to me and watch, too. She rarely does this with any other show.
It was then that I wondered… is Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness radicalizing my pet?
I’d like to think it’s impossible, given Holly weighs all of 12 pounds and prioritizes sleeping 18 hours a day over staging hostile takeovers of her domain. The stakes are also considerably higher in Tiger King than they are in my small apartment: Maldonado-Passage and his rivals — who include Big Cat Rescue’s Carole Baskin and her second husband, as well as Bhagavan “Doc” Antle of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (TIGERS) — lead the kind of lives that would make literally anyone else’s seem quaint by comparison. There are Ferraris, truckloads of expired meat products from Wal-Mart, country music videos, weddings, funerals, fights for SEO placement, multi-level volunteer programs, and plenty of piercings and tattoos. This is a non-exhaustive list.
And of course, there are the animals, who include lions, tigers, ligers, leopards, lynxes, several kinds of monkeys, and alligators that once belonged to Michael Jackson. (There are currently more privately-owned tigers in the U.S. than there are in the wild, and some states either allow or do not regulate ownership. Thus, the menageries at the center of this documentary.) The tigers were also repeatedly accused of involvement in the disappearance of Baskin’s first husband, Don, a theory that has seemingly been endorsed by both Cardi B and Kim Kardashian West. Baskin denies this, calling it “the most ludicrous of all the lies.”
Yet it was Baskin’s comment about halfway through the series — that you could get a cat to eat most anything if you put enough sardine oil on it — that made Holly perk up the most. Reader, she was enthralled. She chirped! And while I don’t know if my cat has ever actually “learned” anything from the television I watch, I grew suddenly, inexplicably fearful.
That’s when I googled it: According to one veterinarian, cats who like watching TV, and especially shows with animals like birds and fish, likely have a higher “prey drive” than their uninterested counterparts, “and are more likely to be attracted to the quick movements of objects across the screen.”
There’s a growing market for streaming content made specifically for cats and dogs, including “cat TV” stations on YouTube and Amazon Prime, and pet-specific playlists on Spotify. (Holly’s includes “I Don’t Fuck With You” by Big Sean and “Eye Of the Tiger” from the Rocky soundtrack.) But my cat has always shown more interest in The Aristocats than any other show or movie I watch, and she yowls any time Cat shows up in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That she now loves Tiger King, and its hundreds of feline co-stars doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Did the production company behind the series make the show with animals in mind? Probably not: The core saga is an entirely human one, encapsulating the theory that everyone is the villain of someone else’s story. And let me underscore this: No one in Tiger King leaves looking faultless, and that includes the bystanders who pay to have selfies with tiger cubs bred in captivity, thus fueling the industry on. Most of the series’ key players have since disavowed the editing as well as their portrayals, who knows if we’ll get a second season, or even if we should. Much of the seven-episode roller coaster is a tragedy, for the animals as much as anyone else.
But I also know this: If I suddenly disappear under inexplicable circumstances, please talk to Holly first.
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