Tiger King takes you into a crazy subculture you can’t quite believe

The insane world of big cat owners has gripped everyone in lockdown, including Sam Delaney

Once, when I was jogging by the Thames, I saw a heron wrestling with a gigantic eel on the riverbank. It was an extraordinary and quite chilling spectacle.

In fact, it’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. I am 45 years old and have been around a bit. I’m not exactly David Attenborough or Elton John (imagine the sort of messed-up shit they’ve witnessed) but neither am I particularly sheltered or naïve. At least that’s what I thought, until I watched Tiger King on Netflix.

Tiger King is a documentary series that investigates the world of big-cat owners in the United States. It is the maddest programme I have ever seen. So mad that, over the course of seven hour-long episodes, it has to skip past certain story elements that – in any ordinary show – would qualify as the whole narrative premise. For instance, in episode two, we meet Matio Tabraue, exotic animal owner, former drug smuggler and alleged inspiration for the Tony Montana character in Scarface. It is revealed that Tabraue used to smuggle huge quantitates of cocaine inside the bodies of live snakes. Pretty remarkable, right? I could almost imagine Netflix making an entire standalone seven-part series just about this one story – and calling it ‘Drug Snakes.’ I would definitely watch Drug Snakes. But in the context of Tiger King, the drug snakes deserve no more than a passing mention. And Tabraue, the ex-drug lord who lives in an insane compound in Florida where a family of chimps run around the place wearing nappies underneath little dresses and sailor suits, doesn’t even rank among the top four most extraordinary characters in the show.

There is Joe Exotic, the mulletted zoo-keeper with three husbands who employs convicts to care for his tigers and, when one of them has their arm ripped off by one of the animals, responds by sighing: “I will never financially recover from this.”

There is Doc Antle, the madman who rides about his personal zoo on the back of an elephant, bedding his squadron of young female tiger-keepers while sporting a magnificent white pony-tail and soul-patch combo that defies all polite styling conventions.

And there is Carole Baskin, the self-styled Mother Theresa of Tigers, who is alleged to have killed her millionaire husband and fed his body to her big cats.

Tiger King is a dazzling and detailed deep-dive into a crazy sub-culture that you never knew existed but, once you do, can’t quite believe. The world of big cat owners in the United States is one of ego, rivalry, violence, sex, psychodrama and massive, dangerous animals.

I have got through this isolation period so far by mentally releasing control of my life to the mysterious forces of the cosmos. The cosmos has repaid my faith by feeding me Tiger King on Netflix. I can highly recommend it as a way of distracting yourself from the anxieties of these troubled times.

Tiger King is on Netflix now

Image: Netflix