WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.
Every few months, a docuseries gets dropped onto one of the numerous streaming services, quickly gains steam on social media, and becomes the next big thing that you have to watch.
Netflix’s newest series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, is many things molded into one. Although it could easily be categorized into the true-crime documentary genre, it’s equal parts reality show and stranger-than-fiction biopic. It also happens to include one of the wildest and strangest casts of characters that has ever appeared in a series.
Although the story is centered around the antics of Joe Exotic — described on the show’s IMDB page as “an Oklahoma polygamist, country singer, and gun toter who houses a horde of lions, tigers, and bears in his roadside zoo and is accused of planning the killing of a local animal rights activist” — there’s a deep stable of other unique individuals who each have their own oddities that take this story to a new level.
Here are some of Tiger King’s biggest characters ranked by just how outrageous their actions are.
10. Rick Kirkham
Throughout the series, Kirkham is the closest thing there is to an all-knowing narrator. His role as a television producer of the web series Joe Exotic TV allowed him to take a front-row seat to the daily shenanigans of Joe Exotic and G.W. Zoo. That chapter of his life came to an abrupt close when the studio that housed his footage for the series was lost in a mysterious fire on the property that also claimed two reptile enclosures (including some that once belonged to Michael Jackson). He’s still one of the more subdued personalities despite his role as an authoritative driver of the narrative as he dons a cowboy hat while taking drags from cigarettes.
9. Barbara Fisher
One of the most revealing segments of the series came from an interview with Fisher, who detailed her stint as an “employee” at Bhagavan Antle’s T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) organization. Her most jaw-dropping revelations included the claim that in order to climb the ranks of Antle’s operation, one would have to enter into a sexual relationship with him. That accusation may or may not be true, but Fisher’s presence and storytelling add another layer to the intrigue of Antle’s persona. Her stint is short lived but does lack a bevy of intriguing nuggets of the story.
8. Joshua Dial
Dial’s presence in the latter half of the series is not without turmoil. As a young individual with aspirations of a career in politics, Dial served as Exotic’s campaign manager when Exotic was running for governor of Oklahoma. A self-described libertarian, Dial provides a voice of reason amongst the cast of characters that have warped reality. One of the more harrowing moments of the series is the footage that is shown of Dial’s reaction to Travis Maldonado’s accidental suicide in which Maldonado shot himself while trying to prove his weapon would not fire without its magazine, despite there being a bullet in the chamber. Dial understandably looked on awestruck in shock.
In a series in which it’s hard to find someone to root for, Dial’s short arc is one that deserves sympathy.
7. John Finlay
The teeth (or lack thereof) are haunting. The display of his tattoo-covered torso anytime he’s on camera is distracting. However, Finlay’s narration of some of the more personal aspects of Exotic’s life peel back the curtain on his boisterous persona. Finlay was Exotic’s partner for over a decade throughout the saga, although it’s unsure if the two were ever officially married before the joint ceremony with Exotic and Maldonado that the series shows. His trademark tattoo above his groin reading “Private Property of Joe Exotic” was just one of the many interesting quirks of their relationship. As Kirkham explains, “John Finlay came out and said ‘Look I got to tell you, I’m not really gay, I’ve been sleeping with the girl at the front desk.’”
Finlay ultimately ended his relationship with Exotic to continue his relationship with the aforementioned woman.
6. Travis Maldonado
Maldonado was Exotic’s third husband, and the second portrayed in the series. His relationship with Exotic was always one of dependence. As Dial describes it in an interview, “There are people out there who will look at a person who is in desperate, dire need of something. In Travis’ case, he was addicted to meth — and they take that need and they fulfill it, until they become the only person who can fulfill that need.”
In similar fashion to Finlay, Kirkham also proclaimed Maldonado was not gay. “”I told Joe at least three times that Travis was not gay, OK? Travis was banging every girl in the park,” Kirkham said to the producers of the series.
Nonetheless, Maldonado’s story is a sad, tragic one of someone battling personal demons.
5. Mario Tabraue
The mere fact Tabraue is the alleged inspiration for the Tony Montana character in Scarface plays only a minor role speaks to the overall insanity of the entire saga. His past as one of the most notorious drug dealers in Miami was a precursor to his introduction to the world of big cats. Early on in the series, the production crew attempts to enter his property only to be prevented by security. The crew is eventually able to obtain access, and Tabraue delivers one of the best lines of the entire series when he dons a monkey around his neck while saying “sometimes they say that I’m the prototype for Scarface.”
I’d watch an entire spinoff series focused solely on Tabraue. While not as extravagant or flamboyant as some of the other characters, Tabraue carries an aura of mystery that goes just beyond his affinity for big cats.
4. Jeff Lowe
If there’s one word that best sums up Lowe’s persona, it’s sleazy. His standard attire of ripped jeans, a bandana and a baseball hat are showing extreme levels of How Do You Do Fellow Kids. Lowe’s questionable backstory includes illegally carrying lion and tiger cubs in suitcases through hotels in Las Vegas, a description as a “swinger,” and a history of domestic abuse with his former wife. Lowe preys on Exotic’s hardships as mounting legal fees from an ongoing dispute with Carole and Howard Baskin quickly drain his finances and force him to sell the park to Lowe to keep it alive. Despite his involvement in the murder-fire-hire scheme that ultimately winds up being the downfall of Exotic, Lowe escapes unscathed by cooperating with federal agents to save his own skin.
Lowe’s actions are shady through and through.
3. Carole Baskin
The “Mother Teresa of Big Cats” is the perfect foil to Exotic’s bombastic lifestyle, but not without some question marks of her own. The biggest possible skeleton in her closet (or somewhere in her Big Cat Rescue sanctuary) is the strange disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis. Did she feed him to a tiger? Is he in the property’s septic tank? Did he flee to Costa Rica only to never be heard from again? SO MUCH MYSTERY.
And, of course, there’s the entire, you know, fact her biggest adversary hatched a plot to have her murdered. Baskin is not perfect by any means. Is she the protagonist of the story? Is she an anti-hero? Her portrayal in Tiger King presents a mixed bag that leaves a complex assumption up to the viewers.
2. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle
My one hot take after watching this series was that I wish Antle was the main focus of the plot. There is SO much to unpack with him.
To start, his soul patch and ponytail combo is an absolute look. He looks exactly like what I would expect a guy that calls himself Bhagavan to look like. Even before the series aired, Antle was already regarded as one of the most well-known big cat enthusiasts as evidenced by his appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman.
His portrayal in Tiger King, however, is not a favorable one. It is alluded to repeatedly that he runs a cult-like organization, as mentioned above by Fisher. There is uncertainty surrounding the nature of his relationships with those who work as apprentices, and there is speculation in multiple interviews surrounding just how many wives he actually has. Many of his apprentices begin as teenage women, and Fisher’s remarks stated Antle would have them change their names to something more exotic (pun not intended) and would pick their outfits that were usually some sort of scantily clad big cat print based.
It remains unclear how much of Antle’s reputation is actually true, but there’s no denying the sheer force of his personality.
1. Joe Exotic
As if anyone else was going to be in the top spot? The antics of Exotic that are shown in Tiger King could easily warrant their own detailed list, but here are some of the most outrageous ones from the series:
- Running for president in 2016, then following it up by running for governor of Oklahoma in 2018 and earning 18.7 percent of the Libertarian vote
- Literally any of his eccentric music videos from his country music catalogue. “Here Kitty Kitty” might be the most absurd of all of them
- Performing a song at Maldonado’s funeral
- His affinity for dynamite and blowing things up
- GOING TO PRISON BECAUSE OF A MURDER-FOR-HIRE PLOT
There’s so much about Exotic’s entire aesthetic that is hard to put into words. Above all else, Exotic was a showman and an entertainer. As he spirals deeper and deeper into his complicated rivalry with Baskin, we see just how far he’s willing to go in order to preserve his life’s work. It’s fascinating to watch a man so consumed with being on top of his world and the resentment he feels towards those who oppose him that he loses his grip on reality before ultimately ending up in prison.
There are few real life stories and characters — if any — that can match Exotic’s larger-than-life saga.