Along with most of America during the quarantine, we watched the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Tiger King is filled with the type of material documentarians and true crime aficionados dream of: murder plots, arch nemeses, exotic animals, and larger than life characters. But Tiger King was also rife with exploitation. Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Jeff Lowe differ in their loyalties, their animal facilities, and their enemies, but one theme is shared among them all: exploitation. From animal abuse, to the abuse and manipulation of vulnerable people, Tiger King sheds an unexpected light on what life is like for the people who work for the Kings of big cats.
Before diving into to what the various big cat businesses look like, it’s important to remember what federal law says about labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is
knowingly provid[ing] or obtain[ing] the labor or services of a person by any one of, or by an combination of, the following means — (1) by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person; (2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or another person; (3) by means of abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process; or (4) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint[.]
18 U.S.C.A. § 1589(a) (West 2008). Under that provision, “serious harm” is “any harm, whether physical or nonphysical, including psychological, financial, or reputational harm, that is sufficiently serious . . . to compel a reasonable person . . . to perform or to continue performing labor or services in order to avoid incurring that harm. Under federal law, sex trafficking of an adult occurs when an actor “knowingly . . . recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, advertises, maintains, patronizes, or solicits by an means a person” who “engage[s] in a commercial sex act” by means of force, fraud, or coercion. If the victim is not 18-years-old yet, there is no need to present evidence of force, fraud, or coercion, though we know those often are still present in the victimization.
The Self-Proclaimed “Tiger King”: Joe Exotic
Joe Exotic is the main subject of the docuseries, as he claims to be the Tiger King. At the time of filming, Exotic operated the Great Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Presently, he is serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison for a murder-for-hire plot and various animal abuses. Exotic had “more than 200 big cats,” including 176 tigers, at the zoo according to media reports on the documentary.
Like much of the docuseries, the true drama with Exotic lies beyond the Tigers, in his relations with his husbands and employees. Throughout the docuseries viewers were introduced to Exotic’s younger husbands. At one point, a wedding is shown where Exotic is marrying two men at the same time. His two husbands were significantly younger than him and both identified as heterosexual, despite marrying the male Joe Exotic. Employees spoke about both men engaging in ongoing sexual relationships with female employees behind Exotic’s back, and one even went on to marry a woman after his relationship with Exotic ended. In episode two, Joe Exotic explains a conversation with his eventual second husband, where he asked “how straight are you” to which he replied “pretty straight,” but after asking some questions about pornography preferences, Joe Exotic told him “well you ain’t [sic] that straight.”
So how did Exotic manage to have two husbands at the same time, who both identified as heterosexual, and were several years his junior? His primary method of manipulation was chemical: there are allegations that he was supplying meth and marijuana to them to keep both men under his thumb. Jeff Lowe, an investor in the G.W. Zoo, alleged that “Joe kept [one of his husbands] pumped full of weed to keep him from waking up and realizing this isn’t a life to live.” Both husbands also reportedly used meth. A wildlife hobbyist alleged that Joe recognized that meth use could be used as a tactic of control in order to get the men to marry him. Joe Exotic also showered his husbands with gifts including trucks, four-wheelers, and guns. One of Exotic’s husbands had “Privately Owned” and “Joe Exotic” tattooed just under his waistline. The men he chose were young and vulnerable, and therefore, were more likely to prey to Exotic’s tactics.
Exotic’s actions are similar to what traffickers do to those they prostitute. Traffickers often either get their victims addicted to drugs or exacerbate existing addictions in order to make them dependent on the trafficker for access to the drugs. Research has indicated 84% of sex trafficking survivors reported suffering from a substance use disorder during the time they were being trafficked. Traffickers also use tattoos as a way to brand their victims. This process denotes “ownership” to the trafficker, much like the “Privately Owned” tattoo on Exotic’s first husband. Joe Exotic referred to his family of husbands and workers as his “little cult,” which he intentionally mirrored after Doc Antle’s operation.
Exotic’s employees were also a group of vulnerable people that appeared dependent on the zoo. At the time of being hired at G.W. Zoo, many of the employees were struggling to find work due to their past criminal convictions. The documentary shows Exotic talking to a woman at a bus stop asking if she will come work at the zoo in exchange for a trailer to live in at the zoo; he says he’ll “give her a start.” The woman appears to be nearly in tears speaking to him, and agrees to the arrangement. One employee said in episode two, “Joe definitely liked to hire people who that was their only option.” The alleged reasoning was that “if this is all they have, and it’s decent, they’ll work hard enough to keep it.” Joe Exotic allegedly paid his employees approximately $150 a week and had them working 10-12 hour work days. This low-salary left some of them scavenging through a delivery truck of expired meat, meant to be fed to the animals, looking for food for themselves. On the docuseries, employees are seen living in impoverished conditions on the zoo property.
In episode two, the focus is on Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, or T.I.G.E.R.S., in South Carolina. Antle not only runs a tiger exhibit, he also allegedly runs what appears to be a labor trafficking organization that is staffed by women in a cult-like “family” relationship with Antle. Multiple women, many of whom started as “interns” when they were in their teens, live and work at T.I.G.E.R.S. The women work for $100 a week in terrible living conditions, according to Barbara Fisher, a former employee of Antle’s. Fisher alleges that Antle changed their names, created their daily schedules, and encouraged the women to engage in a sexual relationship with him, preferring those with no prior sexual partners.
Much of this behavior mirrors the same type of cultic relationship that occurs in pimp-controlled sex trafficking. Megan Lundstrom, founder of Free Our Girls, described this method of control in a video, “The individual leader is the ultimate guide in the woman’s life and that he has the ability, through a variety of methods, to build the woman into the ideal person suited to serve his needs exclusively.” There are no allegations that Antle was forcing women into prostitution; however, he clearly centered himself as the “ultimate guide” in his employee’s lives. Even his name, Bhagavan, means “venerable”, “divine”, or “holy” in Hinduism. In pimp-controlled sex trafficking, traffickers routinely make their victims call them “daddy,” a name that also denotes leadership and control. These types of manipulative, unhealthy relationship dynamics have a strong, coercive effect.
Jeff Lowe is introduced in the series as an investor prepared to save the Great Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park from financial ruin after Exotic got involved in a series of lawsuits. He came from a family deeply entwined in the animal and circus business. Lowe is seen making visits to Las Vegas where he would smuggle tiger cubs into hotels to lure women into having sex with him. The tigers were referred to as “bait” by zoo employees discussing Lowe’s process. Beyond using tigers to lure women into his hotel rooms, Lowe was also around during the end of Exotic’s time as the leader of G.W. Zoo. At minimum, Lowe was complicit in the exploitation of the employees. At worst, he was financially benefiting from the exploitation due to his role as an investor and, eventual owner, of the zoo.
The CSE Institute urges the public to watch a series like Tiger King with scrutiny. The media we consume has a way of infiltrating our thought process, and we need to be vigilant in the fight against exploitation of all kinds. Sharing memes supporting people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle are more harmful than humorous, and can make survivors of exploitation feel as though their voices do not matter.
The CSE Institute applauds the work done by the FBI in investigating Joe Exotic and prosecuting him for his murder-for-hire plot and his numerous animal abuses. However, more can and should be done to investigate the potential crimes against persons committed by Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Jeff Lowe. At the minimum, society should stop glorifying their lifestyle as being “outrageous” and instead take the position that it is exploitative both to the animals and to the people. “Employers” should never use poverty, drugs, or sex as a way to control human beings.