Examining the characters of “Tiger King”

Renee Gould ‘22 reviews “Tiger King’s” main characters.

Photo of a tiger from the popular Netflix series, Tiger King.

Photo of a tiger from the popular Netflix series, “Tiger King”.

Renee Gould, Opinion Editor

“Tiger King” is the hit Netflix documentary that’s taken the world by storm since it’s release on March 20th, 2020. To be blunt, just about everyone on the show has done awful things, with two major exceptions; John Reinke and Kelci “Saff” Saffery. For this review, I’m going to focus purely on my thoughts about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the two major players in the show as well as Reinke and Saff. This is mostly because there are just so many people in the documentary, and these are the four that stuck out most to me. 

John Reinke

First off, John Reinke. This is the man who lost his legs, though they were not taken by the big cats he cared for. He makes relatively few appearances in the show, though he was the former manager at the G.W. Zoo. The reason he stuck out to me was purely due to the fact that he seemed to genuinely care for the animals, and he wasn’t shown to be doing anything particularly bad. Obviously there is a lot of controversy, as he was complicit to Exotic’s animal harm, however, it is unknown if he actively participated in said harm. When asked who he was more there for, the animals or Exotic, Reinke said “Definitely the animals. When my legs actually got bad, and I had to have the other one amputated, it kept me going. I looked forward to taking care of the animals.” Though, in a show where everyone could be constantly lying through their teeth, saying such doesn’t particularly mean that he cared about the animals. I still would like to think that he was a decently good person. 

Kelci “Saff” Saffery

Next up is Kelci “Saff” Saffery. Saff identifies as male, though the documentary repeatedly refers to him as “she.” The reason why he left me feeling like he was a generally good person was because of how committed he is to the animals. This is proven when he loses a hand to a tiger, decides to have it amputated, and still comes back to work with the animals. Furthermore, he had to watch the video of the accident happening over and over due to it being used as a training video. Saff also proved himself to be a generally kind person, which is demonstrated when he says the following in an interview about the show: “They showed Joe serving [the free Thanksgiving food], but they never explained what he was doing. He fed people for free, a full Thanksgiving dinner, that him and his family cooked, you know, for the entire night prior […]. Joe did a lotta messed up stuff. That’s a fact, and that’s shown, and now the entire world knows it. But he did a lotta good things, too.” To me, that shows that Saff understood how awful Exotic was but also saw that Exotic was a person, and that people are more than just good or evil. I found that Saff had the most balanced ideas of anyone on the show, and seemed to have no major personal vendetta. I found myself believing most of what Saff said, purely because I never saw any significant, clear reason why he would lie. When asked whether he was there for the animals or for Exotic, Saff said “Definitely the animals. It seemed like I was loyal to him, I think, because he was the big head of everything. But everything I sacrificed was for the animals.” And this simply feels true to me, and it came to feel as though Saff was a fairly neutral party, who was purely there for the animals. 

Joe Exotic

Now to the main driving force in the show, Joe Exotic himself. At first, I could understand him. Actually, there were parts of him that I could understand all the way through the show. However, it quickly became very clear to me that he was going off the rails, and fast. This is particularly showcased in all his own show’s recordings, and I found this to be the most damming evidence against him. In the end, I think he definitely tried to have Carole Baskin killed. He had lost just about everything, and to me, it truly seemed as if he thought he was the victim of everything. He likely thought that it had started with Carole Baskin, who he believed to be a massive hypocrite who murdered her own husband. And as the show went on, he was clearly losing it. Almost completely throughout the show, it felt as if he was a powder keg, just waiting to be set off. Then it was all his losses, or perceived losses, that acted as the match. Travis’s death, John Finlay divorcing Exotic and coming out as heterosexual, and Jeff Lowe’s supposedly stealing the zoo. I think that in Exotic’s mind, he had lost absolutely everything, and it had all been because of Baskin. Overall, I came away with the opinion that Exotic had completely unraveled, that he was never a great person, but he had at least been decent before his spiral. I found him to be sympathetic at first, and downright insane at the end. 

Carole Baskin

Finally, Carole Baskin herself. I honestly think that if she’d stayed quiet, I would’ve found her to be a good person who was a victim of Exotic’s insanity who had simply trying to help animals. As a matter of fact, about two years ago, I subscribed to Big Cat Rescue’s YouTube channel, and though I was never an avid viewer, I still had a generally positive opinion of her. However, as the series went on, I found her to be a complete hypocrite. First of all, she used to breed and is now calling breeding evil. Of course, people change over time, but this is honestly just the tip of the iceberg. I found that her using the animals for profit, though of course nonprofits require money, was at least partly unjust. She clearly had a lot of money. She used lawsuits to wear Exotic down, and had inherited most of her ex-husband’s money. I particularly found her not paying her volunteers, many of whom had been with her for years, to be the most damming evidence. I saw the volunteers as being Baskin’s rough equivalent to Don Antle’s harem. And now, to the major rumor circulating; that she murdered her husband. At first, I found it completely absurd. Then she opened her mouth. The main comment that stuck out to me was the one about not being able to fit his hand in the meat grinder she had. She sounded fairly certain that she couldn’t fit his hand into the grinder she had at the time. One of the main points in her favor is that none of her known animals could’ve broken a human femur, with the only one that had the best chance of it being a jaguar, and it is unknown if she had one on the property at the time. Personally, I believe that it is completely possible, particularly as she had everything to gain from his disappearance and everything to lose had he divorced her. As well, the parts about how much she was given in contrast with how little his ex-wife and children, on top of the oddity in the legal documents. Overall, I found her to be someone who had a lot to gain by lying, and therefore she was someone who I didn’t trust throughout the series, and this meant that she ended up being someone whom I saw as a bad person. 

Overall, I came away disliking Carole Baskin the most, though Joe Exotic isn’t far behind. I also thought that only John Reinke and Kelci “Saff” Saffery were generally good people, though this was mainly due to gut instinct rather than evidence in their personal lives, mainly because their lives weren’t dug into too much in the series. “Tiger King” definitely lives up to the hype, showcasing almost unbelievable characters, and all the insanity and backstabbery that breeding and showcasing big cats seems to bring. It’s definitely a good series to watch when bored during quarantine.