Netflix's new true-crime documentary Tiger King pulled back the curtain on the exotic animal trade in the U.S. over the weekend, and on the motley crew of collectors responsible for the lives of hundreds of wild animals currently being displayed in cages as trophies. EW recently caught up with producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin to discuss the series' colorful characters, controversies, and potential future.
The seven-episode docuseries begins as an introduction for viewers unaware of the business, but as it starts taking shape, it becomes surprisingly more sinister. The star of the series is Joe Exotic, an eccentric animal collector currently serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison for the attempted murder of his nemesis Carole Baskin.
Baskin is the only female ringleader featured and quite a thorn in the side of many of the collectors, but Exotic's obsession with her goes beyond anything that would be considered normal. Baskin, who owns Big Cat Rescue in Citrus Park, Fla., has a longstanding rivalry with Exotic as she believes she's protecting wild cats from people like him who are breeding the animals for profit.
"I think there's a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to Carol, and a lot of greenwashing," Goode tells EW. "I think that what people should take away from the show and what one should do to protect tigers, in particular, big cats, is to support more programs in the wild."
He adds, "I have mixed feelings about supporting places that so-call rescue big cats because I'm not sure ultimately, they're providing such a service. I hate to say this, but the Humane Society rescues dogs or the ASPCA, and they humanely euthanize a lot of dogs and people sometimes take offense with that. But oftentimes that's the most humane thing to do, just humanely euthanize an animal rather than keeping them in a cage for the duration of its life. Carol keeps them in cages for the duration of their lives, and I'm not sure that's the right thing to do."
Chaiklin agrees, but finds some redeeming qualities in Baskin.
"I agree with Eric, but I do think at least she is raising awareness around this issue," she says. "At one point in time, she had the largest private collection of big cats in America and she was breeding like crazy. And she has evolved in her thinking over time, which you have to give her credit for. And she's smart, and she's on top of social media, and she figured out how to raise a lot of money. She's impressively intelligent, and she is helping in terms of the messaging that this is not a good practice and it's cruel to the animals."
Since the documentary's March 20 release, there's been chatter on social media as to whether or not the people who participated were paid to lie or exaggerate their stories. Goode says this is one of many false rumors he's heard.
"That's categorically false," he says. "We only compensated a few people when they were offering us their life rights, and this was because part of the way into the story was after Joe was arrested, a lot of media piled on to tell the story. So we did secure life rights for a few characters, and we also compensated people for content and the rare location fee. But other than that, we did not pay people. They’ll be a lot of stories and accusations out there now."
He adds, "I want to be clear that I am not an animal-rights extremist. I'm not an animal-rights activist. If anything, I'm an animal-welfare supporter and an animal conservationist. I wear leather and I eat meat, and I believe people should be able to keep pets responsibly. And so I just want to be clear that this is not a project where we were animal-rights activists going into this trying to ban people from being able to have a pet. It's very important for people to understand the difference between the animal-rights movement versus animal-welfare movement versus conservation, because they're distinctly different."
Chaiklin notes, "As you can see in the series, there's a lot of archival material. And unlike other documentaries, our archival materials are almost 100 percent from people's personal archives. Which was a dream as filmmakers, that our subjects were so obsessed with filming themselves. So we did, and we paid them far less than we would if we had to buy something from Getty or CNN or ABC. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and it would actually be unethical not to do that. You didn't have to exaggerate in this world, it was as colorful. You couldn’t have made this stuff up. No exaggerations needed. It's categorically untrue."
With all the attention Tiger King has received, Chaiklin teases that there could be more coming down the pike.
"To be continued," she says after a long pause. "I mean, yes we have a crazy amount of footage and it's a story that's still unfolding. We're not sure yet, but there could be a follow-up on this story because there's a lot that's still unfolding in it, and it'll be just as dramatic and just as colorful as what has unfolded these past few years.
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