Tiger King mania has swept the country, thanks to the magnetic entropy of Joe Exotic, a gay polyamorist in Oklahoma who has an obsession with tigers and a nearly equal love affair with firearms. And at some point in the documentary’s seven-hour descent into exotic animal breeding, cults, murder plots and con men, I realized that what worried me just as much as the 500-pound cats on screen was the sheer amount of weaponry — from revolvers to rifles to shotguns and explosives — in the hands of Joe and everyone around him, seemingly just for shits and giggles.
I’m sure Joe wouldn’t describe it as such: He and other exotic animal collectors depicted in the documentary claim they’re strapped up because of death threats and other intrusions from opponents, namely “the animal rights people.” No matter that eco-activists haven’t killed anyone in modern American history; with an apparent enemy at the gates, Joe wanted more than to be armed. He wanted to show deadly intent, too. It’s evident from the very first episode of Tiger King, in which director Eric Goode asks him about the six-shooter that’s attached permanently to his hip. The revolver is for “people… not the cats,” Joe Exotic replies with a smarmy grin.
And no person is a bigger target than archnemesis and Big Cat Rescue kingpin Carole Baskin, who is a thick and stubborn thorn in the side of Joe and his breeding operation. Baskin is a wily opponent, even deploying undercover operators to trail Joe and document potential illegal tiger cub sales, but there’s no evidence that she would mark the Oklahoma man or his workers for violence. Nonetheless, we see Joe Exotic grow increasingly paranoid and aggressive, especially on his frequent livestreams to fans. He threatens to shoot Baskin if she “ever, ever, ever” sees him in public and shoots a dummy in-studio to punctuate his point. He yells about “putting a cap in her” while pointing a gun at the cameraman. He blows things up while talking about Baskin. He has others blow things up while talking about Baskin. The fetish for violence is so strong that Joe even makes a suicide pact with zoo manager John Reinke, with two bullets in the latter’s revolver with their literal names on it, “if anything goes wrong.”
With this diorama, we start to learn how firearms and the potential for deadly violence feed into Joe Exotic’s increasing daydreams about destroying a threat to his way of life. Ironically, the problems Tiger King considers in the recklessly unregulated tiger market are the same that persist with America’s modern gun obsession. In a parallel with exotic animal ownership, only a minority of Americans own firearms, and a tiny proportion of diehard fanatics own 50 percent of the country’s gun stock. And in another poetic parallel, big cat breeders argue that regular people deserve the liberty to own a powerful, dangerous object if they want to, no matter the potentially deadly incidents that may arise. To own a big, beautiful rifle like an AK-47 is to join a self-selecting cohort of people who get it. And given our cultural lessons around macho dudes who tote guns, it’s no wonder that Joe felt stronger for it.
But, of course, Joe Exotic never defended himself with a gun, against a person or a tiger or anything else. Instead, he mostly just shot because of a stewing cocktail of anger and boredom. And no matter how many phone calls the local sheriff’s department got about Joe’s erratic behavior, the law couldn’t touch the explosives and rifles that served as Joe’s toys. It didn’t matter how many times he brandished a firearm on the internet, talking about taking a woman’s life with it. It didn’t matter that he threatened “another Waco” if anyone tried to “take his guns.” It didn’t matter that Joe liked to shoot guns near other people as a joke, especially when high off coke or meth. And it didn’t matter that the people who worked for him, including young husband Travis Maldonado, showed the same carelessness with guns on the property.
It seems like a cruel fate that Maldonado, a 23-year-old pothead with a nasty habit of sticking guns in people’s faces, accidentally shot himself in the head. It also seems like a minor miracle that it wasn’t Joshua Dial, who was staring at the end of Maldonado’s barrel just moments earlier, who bled out on the concrete floor that day. Maldonado’s last words were full of confidence: “You know a Ruger won’t fire without a clip,” according to Dial.
This is a scene that plays out, again and again, in America — a country with the most guns per capita and a big death toll to show for it. Joe Exotic himself was a victim, at the hands of an unpredictable, abusive husband who stuck a gun at his head while screaming in a rage (and eventually got life in prison for the murder of another man, using a gun). Considering that firearms greatly raise the odds of a domestic violence incident turning fatal, it’s not surprising that Joe found solace by arming himself against other armed people. Carole Baskin and her husband, Howard, certainly felt the same energy when they bought rifles to keep under their bed in case Joe (or someone like him) showed up in the front yard.
It’s fair for Second Amendment types to claim that this recklessness is an outlier, or that freedom for self-defense justifies all means, but it’s a motivation that feeds the cycle ad nauseam. Research continues to suggest a strong link between more guns in an area and more gun violence, including accidental shootings. Self-defense remains a tiny sliver of the reality of gun ownership in America. And psychological experts say that owning a gun can lead to increased aggression, especially in men. Given the scale of the issue, I’m not sure that Joe hosting a gun safety class in the aftermath of Maldonado’s tragic death did much.
There are no easy answers to the gun culture that fuels a story like Joe Exotic’s. Perhaps if buying a gun was more difficult, took longer or required more training and documentation, we might see accidents and fatalities continue to fall. But Tiger King shows that regulatory policies are only one element of our complex love affair with bullets and power. To own a tiger is to flaunt some small mastery over savage power that many can’t and don’t want to contain. Joe Exotic shows that owning and brandishing a gun is, in a lot of ways, the same thing.