Five Things I Learned Watching "Tiger King"

Life through the eyes of a bunch of narcissists.

Posted Apr 02, 2020

For the past three days, I, like many in America, have been watching the Netflix documentary Tiger King, constantly questioning:

“Is this really worth watching?”

“Did I not notice that person was missing an arm?”

“How did this just get crazier?”

But, when all was said and done, I realized that if you squint really hard, and look behind the circus-worthy flashiness of the emotionally-charged characters on the show, there is a lot to be learned about human nature.

1) Narcissists are predators, always looking for their next victim.

Tigers are predators in the animal kingdom, and their only real enemies (yes, besides humans) are other tigers, bears, large buffalo, and elephants. I was having a really tough time envisioning how a tiger could lose a battle to any of these animals, but then I recalled that tigers are not pack animals. With the exception of the mother and her cubs, they travel alone. A tiger is merely a predator looking for its next meal.

But, a narcissist is always looking for his next victim.

What is a narcissist, really?

A narcissist is someone with an inflated sense of false self-esteem, or as I like to think of it, the human equivalent of those yummy Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolates. Crunchy, crispy outside that hides a soft center.

The narcissist has to appear all-knowing, all-powerful, and always in control because this was their survival skill for how powerless they felt in the past. Self-esteem in children is directly related to parental warmth. In this case, the parent, however, is more interested in their child being “the best.” Warmth and love are conditional, and the child’s sense of self is related to accomplishments.

Narcissists are preoccupied with power and success—since as a child, their success brought them love. They are entitled and arrogant and think nothing of taking advantage of other people, since they believe that their own uniqueness puts them at an intellectual level that is only truly understood by other, fantastic people.

The first victims of narcissism in Tiger King were certainly the animals. Which isn’t surprising, since a narcissist rarely thinks that people are equal to his or her greatness, much less animals.

But, when these roadside shows and private animal sanctuaries started providing an opportunity for fame, fortune, and the power of being able to control a wild animal that is prey to no one—this was a lifetime dream come true. This was the opportunity to finally be The Best.

Sometimes, you just have to step on a few people to get there.  

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin were constantly looking for someone to take advantage of, and apparently, Joe’s flashy homosexual cowboy routine and Carole’s hippy helper vibe attracted plenty of willing participants. Joe’s crew of misfits, his staff that he described as his way of “helping the helpless,” is made up of current and former addicts, emotionally abused, socially damaged individuals who took any scrap of food and kindness that Joe tossed at them. Carole similarly “employed” idealistic young volunteers with the offer of a self-created tier of power organized by cheap, rainbow-colored, itchy-looking T-shirts.

Joe Exotic also took advantage of young, poor, (and possibly straight) men by luring them with drugs and money and the first sense of family these boys had ever been offered.

Bhagavan “Doc” Antle took advantage of young, sexually inexperienced women—although in some cases the word “girls” feels more appropriate—in order to employ free labor and his own personal harem. (If the word “cult” feels appropriate here, please know that you are not alone.)  

The problem is that there is only one Best. And, so, we must go to war, of course, because even though we are all doing the exact same sketchy thing to these poor animals, one of us needs to have our childhood wounds assuaged by being The Best.

And so, the next victim is one of our own, as we turn on our fellow narcissistic zoo keepers and animal advocates.

2) The human desire to belong and be loved is greater than our survival instinct.

Every animal has a survival instinct, an internal, unconscious impulse to further promote one’s genetics by staying alive and reproducing one’s genetic code by producing offspring.

For example, the fight or flight reaction, which refers to the idea that when presented with a dangerous situation, we assess the threat and decide whether fighting or fleeing are more likely to result in our survival.

And, yet, in Tiger King, we see multiple people ignoring their survival instinct in an effort to be loved and belong.

Joe Exotic and the rest of the gang of unlikely achievers, choose to place themselves in the mouth of these dangerous beasts because these road-side shows have become a family for them to control and manipulate. But it is finally a place to belong.

These dysfunctional families grow larger as Doc collects his young, nubile wives and Carole collects her overworked volunteers and all of these people are just so happy to belong to someone, to something, that they overlook the fact that a gift of expired meat isn’t a sign of love.

They overlook the large amounts of firearms that don’t, in fact, contribute to a safe, loving home, they simply result in a lot of ridiculous bullets flying around at random times.

Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash
The desire to belong is greater than the survival instinct
Source: Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash

How many followers, or “family” members overlooked and under-reacted to Joe’s outrageous and irrational anger at Carole, his threats to violate her with a bizarre, sexual aggression? Because of this intense desire to belong and be loved, these people laughed at Joe’s antics. Apparently, they managed to laugh hard enough that their ability to recognize a dangerous situation didn’t kick in.

Doc’s wives were young, damaged girls who were just so happy to find a home that felt slightly safer than the home they had just run away from, that they accepted breast implants they didn’t want and a religion that was nonsensical at best. The desire to be loved and belong took precedence over feeling valued and feeling safe.

3) Like meets like.

Long ago, I had a supervisor who told me that when working with couples, it was important to keep in mind that whoever the “identified patient,” was, we all choose people who are just as damaged or disturbed or well-adjusted as we are. In fact, often couples begin to have problems when one partner starts to change for the better.

The same applies here. It is impossible and pointless to try to divide these people into “good guys” and “bad guys,” because ultimately, these people were all equally complicit. These leaders had found themselves in each other, and rather than forming functional relationships, their individual dysfunctions grew within this spider’s web of sin and spite.

4) Murder is more natural than we would like to admit.

The number of animals that were killed by these people is heartbreaking. And even more disturbing is how quickly these workers appear to have been talked into lighting a pit of crocodiles on fire or cremating tigers who have aged out of use, or putting a bullet in an animal’s head. Homicide is not unnatural from an anthropological perspective, but when a life is taken, it is usually for the purpose of survival, either for the purpose of evading a predator, or acquiring food.

In the world of these narcissists, who had spent years acting as God, life could be taken away just as easily as it had been given, by forcing these animals to breed more cubs for the show.

The importance of life loses all value when men act like Gods.

5) It doesn’t matter if Carole killed her husband.

Yes, we are all debating this on social media, looking for irrefutable evidence and undeniable proof. We judge her by her lackluster reaction to his death and disappearance, her seemingly minimal emotional attachment to her current husband, and her super-weird crown of flowers that has absolutely nothing to do with saving animals.

It doesn’t matter if she killed him.

Photo by Kevin Lehtla on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kevin Lehtla on Unsplash

She established a life as queen and savior of the endangered cats, and as the beloved leader of so many young and eager animal-loving volunteers, and by doing so, she fulfilled her dreams and her narcissistic aspirations of being The Best.

If Carole’s husband had left her when she was so very close to getting the audience and following that she had always felt she deserved, the narcissistic injury would have been too much for Carole to take.

When a narcissist is rejected or rebuffed, they feel as if their true self has been exposed to the world. That soft, insecure, imperfect, mushy hazelnut center has been exposed as a fraud, and the crown of success torn from his or her head.

A narcissist’s feelings don’t simply get hurt, the shroud of identity that they have worked so hard to construct immediately falls apart and they are left naked.

And angry.

How dare any man not want Carole? How dare her husband not believe that she is the most beautiful, most important woman in the world? How dare he think that he can live without her?

Narcissistic injury often leads to narcissistic rage, during which behaviors and emotions become dysregulated. This can lead to serious outbursts, violent attacks, and, of course, murder.

It doesn’t matter if we think Carole murdered her husband, because that is not a question that we, as casual viewers of a ratings-slanted documentary, are qualified to judge.

The question that we all should be asking is: If Carole were a narcissist living in a world were murder and death threats were common, and if the human desire to be loved and belong is greater than the survival instinct, then in a narcissistic rage, what would stop her from killing her husband?