The Netflix mini-series Tiger King: Murder Mayhem and Madness, about a very bizarre and very American subculture of big cat collectors and breeders, has an Indian connection. It is not exactly relevant to the extraordinary events that drive the seven-episode series, but it’s there.
The focus of Tiger King is Joe Exotic, who ran a private wild animal safari in Wynnewood, Oklahama, between the late 1990s and the 2000s. Visitors paid serious money to cuddle with tiger cubs and watch the zookeeper pose with big cats. Joe Exotic (born Joseph Allen Schreibvogel; also known as Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage) has other exploits to his credit. This openly gay breeder was married to two men at the same time, starred in a reality television show, fancied himself as a singer, released a series of schlocky music videos, and ran for US president and state governor.
His biggest feat is being convicted of attempting to murder animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Exotic was also convicted of animal abuse. He is currently serving a 22-year jail sentence.
Apart from Exotic, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin interview other ultra-macho wildlife traders who claim to be serving the cause of conservation while actually benefitting from exploiting animals for entertainment. One of them, who is nearly as colourful as Exotic, is Doc Antle. His birth name is Mahamayavi Bhagavan Antle, and he runs The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species and the Myrtle Beach Safari in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Unlike Exotic, Antle has evaded prosecution despite accusations of animal cruelty over the years.
The source of Antle’s Hindu connection is explained in a Rolling Stone profile from 2015. Antle’s mother was a follower of Hindu philosophy. In school, he was known by the more easily pronounceable name Kevin.
Antle was a follower of the cult leader Swami Satchidananda. Born in Tamil Nadu in 1914, Satchidananda was among the Hindu godmen who attracted a following in the United States in the 1960s. Satchidananda “arrived on the crest of a wave of fascination with India in the 1960s, as sitar music, meditation and incense became standard features of college dormitory life”, the New York Times noted in its obituary after his death in 2002.
Satchidananda was the opening speaker at the iconic Woodstock music festival in August 1969. In an archival clip, the bearded preacher can be seen addressing the lakhs of American revellers who flocked to Woodstock for music, drugs, and free love. “Through the sacred art of music, let us find peace that will pervade the globe,” Satchidananda said his speech.
In Tiger King, Antle describes Satchidananda as his spiritual guru and says that he has followed his teachings on yoga and vegetarianism. Antle also claims that principles of yoga have inspired the animal training techniques used at his wildlife reserve, and that all the humans who work and live there are vegetarian.
Satchidananda was often photographed with animals. One time, he posed with a tiger supplied by Antle. In another photo, Satchidananda can be seen with Arthur, the lion used in the logo for the Hollywood studio MGM. The photo is framed in Doc Antle’s office, as seen in Tiger King.
Satchidananda’s followers included the jazz musician Alice Coltrane, singer Carole King and actors Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern. Satchidananda’s spiritual retreat Yogaville in Buckingham County, Virginia, was funded by selling off land that had been gifted to him by Carole King, the New York Times said. “At the dedication ceremony in 1986, there were two Bengal tigers, a juggler and a baby elephant named Bubbles,” the newspaper reported.
Was Bubbles the same elephant owned by Antle? The opening paragraph of the Rolling Stone profile mentions a pachyderm of the same name. “‘Let me off, you big cow!” Antle hollers, as he climbs onto a high wooden platform,” the profile says. “He plans to lead Bubbles to the waterfront for a swim, but the 9,000-pound loxodonta shuffles toward a nearby sapling instead, and starts tearing off branches. “Come here, Bub Bub,” Antle bellows. “I don’t want to chase you!”’
Antle also supplied animals to Hollywood productions, including Dr Doolittle, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Mighty Joe Young.
In the mini-series, Antle calls his female staffers “ladies of my life” and says that he leads a “complex lifestyle” that is beyond the understanding of the boring monogamist viewer. Some of the women have Hindu names, which they adopted after they joined Antle’s private zoo. These include Moksha (real name Meredith), Bala (real name Barbara) and Rajanee (real name Renee).
Barbara, who no longer works for Antle, describes his wild animal facility as a cult in itself. Antle would give the women new names to take over their identities and brainwash them into working for him for long hours with poor pay, she says. The women whom Antle groomed were also expected to sleep with him, she claims.
There is some debate about what Antle’s first name means. Does it mean “Lord”, or “Master of the universe” or “Friend of God”? Indian viewers will know the answer to that one.
Indian-American writer Ashwin Rodrigues complained on the website Vice that “Antle is a perfect example of how Indian culture is misappropriated and distorted, furthering the cycle of exoticizing India and promoting troubling archetypes”. Antle “has an Indian name, and gave new Indian names to his possibly captive white employees, but the similarities end there”, Rodrigues writes.
The Hindu philosophy of karma also rears its head in Tiger King. Several episodes are devoted to Joe Exotic’s war of attrition with Carole Baskin. Outraged by Baskin’s attempts to shut down his operation on grounds of animal cruelty, Exotic repeatedly attacked Baskin through his YouTube channel, Facebook account and interviews. He threatened to kill her on several occasions. The sudden disappearance of Baskin’s second husband Don Lewis led to the wild theory, fanned by Exotic, that Baskin had fed Lewis to the tigers of the animal rescue centre run by her.
The mystery behind Lewis’s vanishing remains unsolved. Speaking to the directors of Tiger King, Lewis’s lawyer sidestepped a question about whether he believed that Baskin had murdered Lewis. “There is a God, her name is karma she has a sick sense of humour,” was all the lawyer would say.
The makers of Tiger King draw a questionable equivalence between the messianic Baskin and Exotic and other breeders. Baskin was unsurprisingly unhappy with her portrayal in Tiger King, as was Bhagavan Antle. Wildlife activists too have criticised the series for getting carried away by the catfight between Exotic and Baskin and forgetting what is actually at stake here – the unethical and often illegal tiger-breeding industry in the United States. This has resulted in a greater number of captive tigers in that country – at least 10,000 – than in the wild in the rest of the world, according to The Conversation. “In comparison, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild – down from 100,000 a century ago,” the report stated.
Tiger King was in the making for over five years. Exotic’s travails unfolded even as he was being filmed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, which lends the series both a documentary-level immediacy and the shock value typically found in reality shows. The events that unfold in Tiger King are appalling as well as riveting, with viewers reduced to the equivalent of spectators at a fairground of freaks or a gladiatorial contest in ancient Rome.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Eric Goode acknowledged that the series started out in one place and landed up somewhere quite different.
“I went into this to explore a different side of the animal world in terms of wild animals in captivity,” Goode told Vanity Fair. “After spending years with these subjects the project moved in a different direction. Netflix is very adept at making binge-worthy television and with these larger-than-life subjects that was pretty easy to do. However, my goal is and has always been the same, which is to raise awareness and help save the species.”
The tiger is, of course, the national animal of India and the focus of sustained conservation efforts. Exotic, Antle and other wildlife breeders featured in the Netflix series testify to the animal’s immense power, which can cast a spell on beholders and, by extension, the people who can control and channel this power.
Doc Antle is moved to poetry in describing the tiger: it has “this primordial calligraphy that tells a message just in its very image”.
The tiger also encourages Exotic Joe to display a rare moment of self-doubt. Tigers actually belong to Asia and Africa and India rather than in a private zoo, he says in the final episode of the mini-series. The statement comes after hours of watching him poke, prod, and parade the hapless beasts. Like nearly everything else Exotic says in Tiger King, it is both the honest truth and a self-serving lie.