While you may have watched “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” for its outrageous exploits and unbelievable characters, have you considered what underlies all the ludicrous behavior? Most of us have circulated Tiger King memes, eye-catching stories, and called each other “cool cats and kittens” — but let’s get to the roots of this cultural phenomenon. I’ll analyze the characters through a psychological lens and speak to their traits that more broadly reflect the human experience. You think you have nothing in common with Joe Exotic? Well, you might want to look again. As a therapist I’ll explore narcissism, trauma, empathy, identity, and more within Tiger King.
Helpful context: People I’ll refer to are: Joe Exotic (former zoo owner otherwise known as the “tiger king”), Carole Baskin (animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue), and “Doc” Antle (a big cat trainer and wildlife park owner). The main plot lies between Joe and Carole who are committed to each other’s downfall. Doc also plays a part as he exploits tigers himself, further perpetuating practices that Carole supposedly fights against. Though these three are convinced they’re different from each other, I’ll discuss the similarities that tie them together.
Spoiler alert! While analyzing the characters I’ll inevitably disclose information about them.
Blinded by Narcissism
A prominent similarity shared by Joe, Carole, and Doc is their narcissistic behavior. Narcissism is an inflated sense of self-importance, attention-seeking behavior, and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissistic people see themselves as superior to others and can consequently be intolerant and manipulative. Joe, Carole, and Doc were unable to see beyond themselves and blinded to fundamental flaws in their thinking.
Joe: Narcissism fueled his hatred for Carole whom he saw as a threat to his livelihood, status, and public attention. While his relationship with tigers may have began with good intentions, it quickly turned parasitic as he used them to elevate his status, wealth, and popularity. He also ran for president (and when that failed, he ran for governor), solely for the sense of superiority. His campaign manager said, “I still don’t think he knows what a libertarian is,” despite that being his political affiliation at the time.
Carole: Narcissism empowered her mission behind Big Cat Rescue despite her controversial practices. Now, on the surface it may seem that Carole is the hero in Tiger King while Joe is the villain. Well, it’s more complex than that. Throughout the show it was never quite clear what Carole’s true intentions were with the cats. She claims to advocate for their rights yet profits from them and uses them to elevate her status. Also, her feud with Joe fuels her self-righteousness, portraying her as a saint though she also has skeletons in her closet (metaphorically or literally?).
Doc: This man literally goes by the name “Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle.” “Bhagavan” means “god” in Sanskrit. Not only does he go by the name of “god,” he refers to himself as “Doc” as he has a doctorate degree in “mystical science” earned in China. Referring to himself as a god, taking multiple “wives,” and manipulating his female workers are only a few traits that illustrated his narcissism. He also viewed himself as far superior to Joe even though their intentions and practices were very similar.
Side note: You may have heard of narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosis that people tend to assign to self-absorbed people in their lives. Narcissism is diagnosed in a personality disorder when an individual exhibits symptoms that reflect impairment in their daily functioning. To be clear, I’m not assigning a personality disorder to any of the characters in this show, but rather commenting on a common trait.
Trauma and abandonment were common themes for many in Tiger King. Trauma affects each person uniquely, and the way we carry trauma can also be reflected in the how we treat ourselves and others. How have you coped with trauma, abandonment, and pain in your life? How has it informed who you are today?
Joe: He spoke about a suicide attempt as a young adult precipitated by his father rejecting him for identifying as gay. While recovering from his attempt he found his love for tigers as he felt unconditionally loved by them. It seemed that his bond with tigers helped heal trauma he had experienced. Also, it’s possible that the rejection he felt from his father led him to hopelessly seek out various romantic relationships. It was uncomfortable to watch him manipulate his husbands as he desperately tried to control them.
Carole: She also spoke of complex trauma early in life, as well as healing experienced through relationships with big cats. Wounds inflicted by trauma can be healed in various ways, such as through bonds with animals. Additionally, she shared that as a young woman she felt abandoned by her family after surviving a traumatic experience, and left home soon after. Her passion to protect big cats might have stemmed from trauma of feeling unprotected as a child. Sometimes the way we cope with not having had something is by offering it to others.
Doc: He bulldozed his way through conversations that highlighted negative aspects of his life and career. Learning that he spent his young adulthood with an Indian guru made me wonder about his childhood and family life. Where was his family when he was the guru’s understudy? Did he have a family? Also, his dismissal of mistreating female workers, forming a cult, and taking multiple wives made my therapist senses tingle. What secrets does your past hold, Doc?
Drugs, Money, and Power
Tiger King displayed human tendencies for power, control, and addiction. With dominion over animals and people, wealthy businesses, and masses of online followers, characters in the show were shaped by their sense of power. As our society idolizes status, affluence and popularity, its no wonder their egos were inflated.
Joe: He spoke of the “rush” he experienced when around big cats and his desire to sustain that feeling. Addiction is often discussed in terms of tangible substances such as drugs and alcohol. In reality, addiction can also be rooted in intangible things like status, wealth, and control. Additionally, it was implied that Joe had used drugs to self-medicate emotional pain for quite some time. He also appeared to use his wealth to manipulate romantic partners, maintaining control over them.
Carole: Tiger King gave us a glimpse of Carole’s history with big cats, which wasn’t always so pretty. In the past she exploited big cats by advertising them as animals that can be domesticated. Since then, she seems to be profiting from them covertly. Along with making money from Big Cat Rescue entrance fees, she profits from her feud with Joe Exotic as it furthers her agenda (even Joe pointed this out, the narcissist that he is). Also, a subplot in Tiger King explored the suspicions that Carole killed her husband for monetary gain, though this has never been proven.
Doc: He was accused of using big cats to seduce and manipulate women who worked for him, bonding them to him through sexual relationships. While each individual has a sense of autonomy, their perception of autonomy can be warped when under the influence of a master manipulator. One of his previous workers stated that female workers are given new names, overworked, and pressured to undergo procedures for body enhancements. It seems that Doc feels empowered to dominate everyone around him, humans and animals alike. He thinks of himself as a “god” and wants to be treated like one.
Purpose and Identity
As humans it’s natural for us to derive purpose and identity from our passions. Tiger King offered a glimpse into the evolution of identity formation based on one’s relationship with wild animals. I was reminded of the importance to minimize harm, to humans and animals alike, in our search for purpose. One person’s sense of purpose is never greater than the harm it inflicts on others.
Joe: Romantic relationships largely defined Joe’s identity. His desperation for love was painful to watch, especially as he admitted being aware that his husbands weren’t gay, but were with him for his wealth. Joe initially changed his last name to “Exotic,” embracing qualities that set him apart from others such as identifying as gay, a “redneck,” and, of course, the “tiger king.” When his wildlife park and marriage began to deteriorate, his mental health also deteriorated as his sense of purpose and identity were compromised.
Carole: She committed her life to big cats and even mentioned that being murdered by Joe would be worth it if the mission of Big Cat Rescue was furthered. Tiger King blurred the line between rescuing a tiger and possessing it — and perhaps that was the point. Our values underlie our intentions and actions. Whether we deny our motives, or choose to ignore them entirely, our values offer a sense of justification that shapes our reality.
Doc: Our names are a huge part of our identity. “Doc” goes by this name as he has a doctorate degree in “mystical science” (I need more information on this — I’m skeptical). Additionally, he calls himself “Bhagavan,” meaning “god,” highlighting his self-image as an all-powerful being. Dominion over humans and animals was a large component of his identity, to the point that his practices in the wildlife park were cult-like (though he vehemently denied this).
As humans we are neither all “good” nor all “bad.” Our behaviors, however, can be seen as good or bad depending on the lens through which they’re viewed. Tiger King shed light on the muddled boundaries of morality, challenging me to make sense of otherwise confusing human behavior. Factors like trauma, addiction, and greed can drive behaviors that, while justifiable, may be unethical and harmful to others. Our lives are built by the bonds we form animals and humans alike.
Joe, Carole, and Doc illustrated the importance of closely examining whether our actions have their intended effects. We may be surprised to find how often the messages we mean to convey are misunderstood. While it’s easy to quickly judge and assume a polarized view, it’s far more valuable to take a thoughtful approach and fairly consider each perspective. Characters in Tiger King were convinced that their actions aligned with their beliefs. As our values inevitably shape our lives, closely examine what you believe in.
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