News Analysis

Why ‘Tiger King’ Is Not ‘Blackfish’ for Big Cats

Critics say the popular Netflix series and its directors lost sight of the conservation and animal welfare problems at the heart of the story of Joe Exotic.

Two of 39 tigers rescued in 2017 from Joe Exotic’s G.W. Exotic Animal Park, now in the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo.
Credit...Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

More tigers live in captivity in backyards, roadside zoos and truck stops in the United States than remain in the wild. This phenomenon is driven by people like Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the star known better as “Joe Exotic” in “Tiger King,” Netflix’s hit documentary series.

Before his arrest and conviction, Mr. Maldonado-Passage was a major breeder and seller of tigers and other big cats. He churned out cubs for profitable petting and photo sessions, then disposed of them, legally or illegally, when they became too dangerous for play. Some were sold as pets to private buyers, some went to other roadside zoos for breeding and some simply disappeared.

“I call it the breed and dump cycle,” said Carney Anne Nasser, director of the Animal Welfare Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law. The cub petting industry, she said, is “creating a tiger crisis in America,” driven further by widespread animal abuse and a lack of federal oversight.

Many of the interview subjects featured in “Tiger King” say the story was presented to them as one that would expose the problem of private big cat ownership in this country, following in the tradition of many conservation-themed documentaries. Some in the film even say Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the show’s co-directors and co-producers, claimed to be making the big cat version of “Blackfish,” the award-winning 2013 documentary that spurred widespread backlash against SeaWorld.

“Tiger King,” however, “is not the ‘Blackfish’ of the big cat world,” said Manny Oteyza, the producer of “Blackfish.”

Instead, big cats and the issues affecting them are completely lost in the show’s “soap opera-esque drama,” Dr. Nasser said.

Credit...Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

“Tiger King” tells the story of Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s rise, from small-time roadside zoo owner to one of the country’s biggest tiger breeders, then his fall as a felon. After being sued by Carole Baskin, a big cat activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Maldonado-Passage became obsessed with destroying Ms. Baskin and plotted to have her killed.

Critics fear that “Tiger King” creates a glamour around tiger ownership, and assigns a folk heroism to the “Joe Exotic” personality that could set back efforts to end the abuse and ownership of big cats.

“We’re going to start seeing more selfies with cubs, more people wanting tiger cubs,” said Tim Harrison, a retired police officer and exotic wildlife specialist in Dayton, Ohio. He declined to be interviewed for “Tiger King,” because, he said, “it sounded like potentially it could be a freak show.”

President Trump, when asked by a reporter on Wednesday if he would consider pardoning Mr. Maldonado-Passage, said he was not familiar with the case, but that he would “look into it.”

When Karl Ammann, a documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on exposing the illegal wildlife trade, was invited to be interviewed for “Tiger King,” Mr. Goode and Ms. Chaiklin pitched the show to him as a chance to expose the plight of wild tigers. But he said the end product lacked any clear conservation message. “To totally ignore such key aspects was a real missed opportunity,” Mr. Ammann said.

Mr. Goode and Ms. Chaiklin declined to be interviewed for this story, as did representatives from Netflix.

Documentary films about animals and the environment are often lauded for their ability to engage viewers with the natural world and promote positive change.

Credit...Debbie Jolliff/Alamy

“Blackfish,” said Nancy Rosenthal, founder and executive director of the New York Wild Film Festival, is one of the clearest examples. Following the film’s release, SeaWorld’s stock prices fell and, in 2016, the company announced that it would end its orca breeding program and theatrical whale shows.

In some cases, though, documentaries can have the opposite of their intended effect. The Oscar-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove,” about an annual dolphin hunt in the Japanese village of Taiji, sparked international furor.

But Megumi Sasaki, director of “A Whale of a Tale,” a documentary exploring the aftermath of the first film, said it also provoked a domestic backlash that invigorated defenders of the Taiji fishermen.

“When somebody comes in and says, ‘Hey, what you’re eating is not right,’ it really triggers emotions,” she said. “Everybody in Japan, even people who don’t care about whaling, felt that they were under attack.”

What critics of “Tiger King” fear is that the conversation it has sparked, especially around its outlandish characters, might drive a similar dynamic.

Mr. Maldonado-Passage, the series’ central character, is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for 17 counts of wildlife crimes — including trafficking endangered species and illegally killing five tigers — as well as two counts of murder for hire.

At his trial, the federal government presented extensive evidence supporting Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s guilt, including a 45-minute recording in which he discussed plans to arrange the murder of Ms. Baskin with an undercover F.B.I. officer.

“The Department of Justice remains steadfastly confident that the court record, evidence and trial testimony fully supports the correctness of the jury’s verdict,” said Timothy Downing, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.

The social media reaction to “Tiger King,” however, highlights the sympathetic interpretation of Mr. Maldonado-Passage that many viewers took away from the series.

Credit...Netflix, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hashtags such as #FreeJoeExotic and #JusticeforJoe have trended on Twitter and other social media platforms, which suggests many viewers believe he was framed in the murder for hire charges. Mr. Maldonado-Passage is “ecstatic” about “Tiger King’s” reception, Mr. Goode said in an interview with The Times.

“I don’t know why anyone would side with someone who puts animals in a cage and then walks up and shoots them,” said James Garretson, who worked with federal authorities to gather evidence used to prosecute Mr. Maldonado-Passage. “People are just in a frenzy right now.”

In the interest of entertainment and narrative arc, some documentary directors may find it acceptable to depart slightly from reality or to influence the participants’ actions, words or looks, said Steven Cantor, a documentary filmmaker.

“Just because it has the word ‘documentary,’ doesn’t mean that everything in it has to be 100 percent truthful,” he said. “Certain stories you can enhance and not feel like you’re doing anything deceptive.”

But critics of “Tiger King” assert that Mr. Goode and Ms. Chaiklin’s license went too far, at times taking quotes and shots out of context, presenting inaccurate information as fact and jumbling timelines.

This problem, they say, was pronounced in the series’ portrayal of its other main character — and Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s intended victim — Ms. Baskin. She and other advocates are leading efforts to ban cub petting and phase out private big cat ownership through a bipartisan bill currently under review in the House.

Ms. Baskin has been inundated with attention since the documentary’s release, she said, much of it hate mail and death threats. Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s fans have set up a dozen Facebook events threatening to storm Ms. Baskin’s sanctuary.

Some of the animus toward Ms. Baskin might result from choices the filmmakers made in their storytelling. For instance, Ms. Baskin and other critics assert that footage was edited to imply that the animals Ms. Baskin cares for are kept in small, squalid cages. (In fact, the smallest enclosures on her property are 1,200 square feet, a size considered humane by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries for the species that live in them. )

Credit...Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press

These and other editorial decisions, according to Michael Webber, director of “The Elephant in the Living Room,” a documentary about exotic animal ownership, have the effect of making Ms. Baskin and her sanctuary appear “equally bad” as Joe Exotic — a narrative that Mr. Maldonado-Passage has promoted for over a decade.

“They present a false narrative that people like Carole Baskin who have legitimate sanctuaries are no different than Joe Exotic,” said Mr. Webber, “which could not be further from the truth.”

Court testimony also revealed that Mr. Goode and Ms. Chaiklin paid Mr. Maldonado-Passage and other sources. Unlike the makers of reality television, who regularly compensate participants, documentary filmmakers traditionally do not pay sources, Mr. Oteyza of “Blackfish” said.

Ms. Chaiklin told the Los Angeles Times that she and Mr. Goode only paid sources for life rights, archival and personal footage and licensing locations — not for interviews.

“Categorically, we do not pay people for interviews,” Ms. Chaiklin said.

But six people interviewed for the film — including John Finlay and Mr. Garretson, both major figures in the story — claimed that they were paid hundreds to thousands of dollars in cash.

Jeff Johnson, a former friend of Mr. Maldonado-Passage who runs a popular Joe Exotic watchdog group, said that Mr. Goode “flat-out told me he needed me to text him some stuff, send some pictures, so he could legitimize why he was paying me.”

“Tiger King” is the product of a quickly changing film industry, one in which the lines between documentary and fiction are blurring.

“It’s all getting mixed up: documentary, entertainment, reality TV,” said Marcia Rock, a documentary filmmaker and director of the News and Documentary Program at New York University. She added that because of the financial incentives provided by some streaming outlets, “producers are seduced into going in that direction.”

As successes of shows like “Tiger King” potentially encourage more programming that blurs the lines between documentary and reality television, some filmmakers worry about the social toll this could take.

“I believe film and TV are the most powerful medium there is,” said Glen Zipper, a documentary producer and writer. “If we’re delivering something to you that is factually inaccurate — particularly when it has to do with something that is critically important — that ultimately could be quite dangerous.”