clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tiger King is a mesmerizing train wreck. Here are more stories just like it.

Tiger King is just one bizarre story out of many of animal exploitation breeding chaos.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, Netflix’s eye-popping series about the real lives of two exotic animal breeders, has become a sensation online. Viewers have been buzzing about its trademark mullets and animal-print fashion, creating endless memes, and clamoring for more.

It’s not hard to see why, given that Tiger King’s story is a mesmerizing train wreck. We follow Joe Schreibvogel, a.k.a. Joe Maldonado, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, a polyamorous exotic cat breeder who once offered animal pettings at malls across America, and his ongoing feud with Carole Baskin, a zealous breeder turned activist, who the show suggests may have murdered her first husband and fed him to tigers. If that one sentence isn’t enough head-turning drama already, Tiger King follows the ups and downs of Schriebvogel’s attempts to have Baskin killed as their hate-fueled obsession with each other reaches murderous levels. Schriebvogel was recently given a lengthy prison sentence for animal cruelty and for the attempts on Baskin’s life. And some Florida investigators are now showing renewed interest in the 1997 disappearance of Baskin’s husband, thanks to the show.

Tiger King’s success with Netflix viewers is predictable — after all, it’s a classic depiction of greed, paranoia, and good intentions gone horribly awry. It helps that the seven-episode series does offer a sobering look at the deeply abusive culture of exotic pet breeding and trafficking. But what’s likely most delicious for average watchers is that any larger moral intent is tempered by a quirky true crime vibe and the kind of aesthetic you might find on an episode of Jersey Shore.

But what if you’re a Tiger King devotee now wanting more? It’s hard to find another story that neatly combines all the unique elements that Tiger King manages to corral into one place. We’ve done our best to bring you a sampler of stories that might scratch the itch — starting with more Tiger King content that’s already out there. Here are six stories to check out.

Be warned that some of the following content may contain descriptions or images of animal cruelty, which some readers may find disturbing or graphic.

1) Wondery’s Joe Exotic podcast

The Tiger King production team wasn’t the only group following around the pair of dysfunctional animal lovers. Journalist Robert Moor also spent several years tracking down Carole Baskin as well as a host of people who worked with Joe Exotic — or, perhaps more accurately, people who escaped the “cult” he’s accused of leading at his Wynnewood, Oklahoma, animal park.

The result is a short but engaging podcast. Joe Exotic: Tiger King debuted March 19 on the premium podcast platform Wondery Plus, but the first three of its six half-hour episodes, along with a couple of bonus interviews, are available for free on most podcast platforms. And even those three episodes alone make for a mesmerizing binge.

Where the Netflix series unfolds much like a reality show, the podcast focuses on first-person narratives. Carole glibly discusses everything from planning her love life via hypnosis to adopting big cats at the spur of the moment to taking out teenage bullies with an Amway briefcase, plus her abusive first husband’s mysterious disappearance.

As hard as it might be to fathom, the podcast covers plenty of wild stories the Netflix series didn’t get around to, which makes it seem like a perfect complement. Joe’s long-suffering assistant Aaron Stone wearily narrates having to crawl into a crate to hold a frightened spray-painted sheep. We learn that Joe was attempting to pass off the sheep as an adult tiger in one of his animal acts by giving it black and white stripes.

In addition to Joe’s criminal hijinks, one of Joe’s previous partners is in prison on murder charges. Joe himself recruited marginalized employees: people released from prison, rehab patients. Joe’s world is one where he calmly lectures the crying children in his audience on the importance of keeping guns around so that he can shoot anyone who tries to harm his cats. Through a steady stream of interviews and recorded footage, the podcast prods beneath the veneer of spectacle and adventure that Joe creates, to get a more personal view of the man himself.

Joe Exotic mainly sticks to the story in chronological order, which makes the events a bit easier to follow than the Netflix series. Its more serious, journalistic tone also helps. Despite that, the podcast frequently feels as though it’s supplemental material, extra reading for the Tiger King geek rather than the main event. (For instance, in the three free episodes, the show doesn’t have time to touch on the mysterious death of Joe’s partner, Travis Maldonado.)

The main novel thing the podcast provides is the sense that every real-life character in this story flirts with danger — not just because they dally with fierce wildlife, but also because the kind of person who dallies with fierce wildlife is also the kind of person who maybe feeds their husband to tigers. In the environment in which the podcast unfolds, it’s easy to understand how Joe came to think hiring a hit man was no big deal.

2) The story of the Zanesville Animal Escape

The opening episode of Tiger King references this bizarre incident, but the whole truth is even stranger than you might expect just from watching the Netflix show.

In 2011, a 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran named Terry Thompson uncaged and released 56 exotic pets he’d been keeping on his estate, unofficially known as the Muskingum County Animal Farm, into the wilds of suburbia. Thompson freed his menagerie of lions, tigers, macaques, horses, and bears before scattering raw meat around himself — presumably because he wanted to be eaten — and then fatally shooting himself. Officials responding to the scene found chaos, which resulted in the killing of 49 of the animals, leading the incident to be dubbed the “Zanesville animal massacre.”

The best write-up on the Zanesville incident is GQ’s profile of the event, which doubles as a study of mayhem playing out in real time and an in-depth look into the life of the man who apparently engineered all this mayhem in his final moments. Because this story isn’t strange enough, however, in the intervening years, a popular theory has emerged that Thompson was actually murdered. If you’ve seen Tiger King, it is perhaps no surprise that one of the leading proponents of this conspiracy theory was Joe Exotic himself, who filmed a video about the incident not long after it occurred.

3) The behavioral scientist whose experiments led to sex with a dolphin

You might have heard of the infamous 1960s science experiment in which a behavioral psychologist named Margaret Lovatt wound up living with — and having regular sex with — a dolphin named Peter. What often gets overlooked in that story is that Lovatt was only one assistant researcher whose work was overseen by the neuroscientist Dr. John C. Lilly. Lilly had become convinced that dolphins could be taught to communicate with people, in part by making what he believed were “human-like sounds through their blowholes.”

If you’re up for a frank discussion about marine bestiality, then The Dollop podcast’s episode on Lilly’s life and antics — which included his belief that dolphins could help humans telepathically communicate with aliens, and his decision to dose dolphins with LSD — is a pretty hilarious, disturbing rundown. It’s also a revealing glimpse into the kind of dubiously ethical acts academics can get away with in the name of scientific research.

4) Blackfish

One of the most infamous and influential stories of long-term animal abuse is Blackfish. The acclaimed 2013 documentary tells of a SeaWorld orca whale whose aggression in captivity resulted in the deaths of three people. Currently streaming on Hulu, Blackfish isn’t exactly a comfort watch, but it is an illuminating one. It seems to have contributed to plunges in marine park attendance after its wide release, and ultimately led SeaWorld to announce in 2016 that it would no longer breed orcas in captivity.

5) Mike the Headless Chicken

In the long saga of humans exploiting animals for pleasure and profit, we have the interesting sideshow of a mostly headless rooster that survived quite happily for two years after its attempted execution in 1945. The rooster’s owner toured him around the country, where “Mike the Headless Chicken” became so popular that an annual festival still takes place in his honor in Fruita, Colorado. If you liked The Dollop’s dolphin sex episode, the podcast has a short episode on Mike the Chicken, too:

6) The life of P.T. Barnum

The self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbugs” lived a life of fraud, scams, shameless exploitation, and flagrant abuse of both animals and humans. (Never forget Joice Heth, the enslaved woman Barnum bought, kept, and passed off as George Washington’s nursemaid for decades, after which he sold tickets to her autopsy.)

A number of podcasts and documentaries have tried to do justice to the “real” Barnum. We recommend the New Yorker’s trenchant, revealing essay from 2019, which is also available in audio form. The Our Fake History podcast did a two-part episode on Barnum that’s definitely worth a listen too:

If that’s not enough Barnum, Howlround’s Theatre History podcast has a fun — for relative values of “fun” — episode on the origins of the freak show in American pop culture, which ropes in Barnum, his pal Ringling, Venice Beach, Coney Island, and much more.

All of these stories have themes in common with Tiger King: animal (and sometimes human) exploitation, ethics gone awry, and, well, general grossness. But just like Tiger King, despite their admittedly problematic elements, they all contain a kernel of the fascinating and bizarre that’s difficult to ignore. In other words, their stories hold the kind of undeniable appeal that, perhaps, breeds people like John Lilly, P.T. Barnum, and Joe Exotic to begin with.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.